Russia and the U.S. at the Brink in Syria

Trump administration adopts more robust approach.

On Sunday, A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 attack jet while it was on a bombing run against U.S.-backed anti-regime forces. It was the first U.S. aerial kill involving manned aircraft since 1999, when Serbian piloted MiG-29s faced off against USAF F-15s and F-16s and drew the short end of the stick.

F/A-18E is the U.S. Navy’s workhorse. It is an advanced, versatile multi-role fighter bomber which is capable of performing a variety of missions from executing bombing runs to establishing air superiority. The Su-22, codenamed Fitter by the West, is primarily an attack aircraft which can be fitted with guided and unguided bombs as well as air-to-ground 240-millimeter rockets.

The Navy has not stated what ordnance was used to shoot down the Su-22 but the F/A-18E is armed with an internal M61A2 Vulcan nose-mounted, 20-millimeter rotary cannon. It can also be equipped with a variety of air-to-air missiles including the AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AIM-120 AMRAAM and the AIM-7 Sparrow. Any of these weapon systems could have been used to shoot down the Su-22.

The incident began when forces loyal to the Assad regime attacked the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Ja'Din wounding an unknown number of SDF fighters. The SDF is currently working with Coalition forces seeking to defeat ISIS. 

According to Central Command, “Coalition aircraft conducted a show of force and stopped the initial pro-regime advance toward the SDF-controlled town.” Coalition commanders than contacted their Russian counterparts in an effort to de-escalate the situation and prevent further confrontation. But the Syrians continued their assault prompting a more robust American response. The older Su-22 never had a chance against a skilled U.S. Navy pilot seated in one of the world’s most advanced combat platforms. The Syrian pilot, who is still missing, also probably never knew what hit him.

Under the Trump administration, the United States has adopted a more robust approach toward Syria as compared to the pusillanimous policies pursued by Obama. The administration’s main goal is to defeat ISIS. Part of this strategy involves partnering with friendly anti-regime forces, Kurd as well as Arab, who view both ISIS and Assad as enemies. As a result, the alliance has at times put the U.S. in direct conflict with pro-Assad forces operating against the America’s regional friends.

On June 20, a U.S. F-15E shot down an Iranian Shaheed-129 drone operating near al-Tanf, adjacent to the Jordanian border. The missile-armed drone posed a threat to U.S. forces and allied militias in the vicinity. Another drone, belonging to either Iran or Hezbollah was shot down under similar circumstances on June 8. Hezbollah, Iran and Russia have taken the lead role in propping up Assad’s regime.

On May 18, U.S. fighter jets bombed a Syrian convoy of tanks and armored vehicles approaching a base housing American backed rebels at al-Tanf. The strike came after repeated warnings to the convoy to reverse course were ignored. Several pro-regime fighters were killed in the attack and what was left of the convoy turned tail.

On April 6, U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Assad’s Al Shayrat airfield destroying military aircraft and hardened aircraft shelters as well as ancillary military equipment. The strike came in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, which resulted in the deaths of more than 80 civilians including children. Following the April attack, a Putin Spokesman stated that the U.S. action “deals a significant blow to relations between Russia and America, which are already in a poor state.”

The foreign policy void left by the Obama administration enabled Russia to fill the vacuum. Obama’s feckless policies, which bordered on appeasement, facilitated Russia’s expanded role in Syria. By its recent military assertiveness, the Trump administration is indirectly challenging that role. 

Russia, which had free rein to do as it pleased in Syria during Obama’s tenure, is clearly not pleased. In response to the downing of the Su-22, Russia threatened to shoot down Coalition aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River. Russia has formidable air assets in Syria and its sophisticated S-400 air defense system, deployed after a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24, poses a significant threat to Coalition air operations. The S-400’s radar is difficult to jam and can track multiple targets at distances of 250 miles.

The Russian threat drew an immediate and stern response the Pentagon. “We will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened,” said a Pentagon spokesman.

Adding further fuel to the fire, on Sunday Iran launched seven Zolfaghar ballistic missiles at alleged ISIS strongholds in Deir el-Zour, located in eastern Syria. The Zolfaghar is said to have a range of between 700 to 750 kilometers. Iran said it fired the missiles in retaliation for an attack allegedly carried out by ISIS gunmen in Teheran that left 17 dead, and wounded more than 50. Iran claimed that 360 “terrorists” were killed in the strike but that claim is utter nonsense. Of the seven missiles fired, only one hit Deir el-Zour. Three never even reached Syria, having landed in the Iraqi desert. An Iranian attempt at a show of strength and technological prowess was instantly transformed into an embarrassing display of ineptitude.

The irony of the instant U.S.-Russia discord is that it comes at a time when Democrats are accusing the administration of colluding with Russia with increasing vitriol. Among the administration’s shrillest critics are former members of the Obama administration who have been relentless in their denunciations. But these dishonest critics seem to forget that it was the Obama administration that emboldened Russia and enabled Putin to maintain a dominant role in Syria. The Trump administration is systematically reversing nearly a decade of spineless and vacillating policies pursued by its immediate predecessor. 

This glaring irony is one that is conveniently overlooked by Trump’s myopic and disingenuous detractors. In the meantime, U.S. forces continue to press their offensive against ISIS while at the same time, making clear to the Russians and their Shia allies that any interference from them will exact a harsh response.  

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