Is a US-Russian Military Collision in Syria Avoidable?

Possibly, given last-minute developments Thursday night, Sept. 13 (as described in our top story.) Until then, no one knew how long Vladimir Putin would keep going on the lip of the abyss of a clash with the US in Syria without falling over. Would he ultimately order Russian jets to strike an American or pro-US entity, such as the anti-Assad Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the Kurdish YPG military arm, as he has threatened in the event of US intervention? The answer was anyone’s guess until Thursday night.

Before then, not a single Russian warplane or soldier had harmed any US base or Marine in eastern Syria, although Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown, US Central Command spokesman, disclosed on Sunday, Sept. 9: “The Russians informed the US on Sept. 1, via the deconfliction line, that they intended to enter the Al Tanf deconfliction zone to pursue terrorists.” Then, on Sept. 6, he said: “The Russians indicated via written note that they would make precision strikes in the Al Tanf deconfliction zone against terrorists.” He went on to say: “The US does not seek to fight the Russians, the government of Syria or any groups that may be providing support to Syria in the Syrian civil war. However,” Col. Brown said, “the US will not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend US, coalition or partner forces, as we have clearly demonstrated in past instances.”

While trading threats, Russian and Iranian intelligence keep a close eye on – and report – every US move at Al Tanf base, which straddles the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian junction. The Iranian Fars New Agency reported on Sept. 10 that two US convoys of ten trucks loaded with logistic and military equipment were headed towards Al-Susah, an SDF base in the eastern sector of Deir ez-Zour province, near Abu Kamal. Fars also cited local sources as disclosing that another US convoy of 100 trucks, loaded with military equipment, had set out from Iraq and crossed through Simalka to an unspecified SDF-controlled location.

On Sept. 8, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also spotted US-led coalition forces’ vehicles “containing logistical equipment and Hummers on the road for reinforcing its bases east of the Euphrates River” – i.e. al-Susah and al Tanf.

That day, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, briefed President Donald Trump on operational plans in Syria. He told reporters the following day, while on a flight to India, that dispatching the Marines for a live-fire exercise “was meant to send a message to anybody who’s looking” that “they should not look at Al Tanf as a soft target.”

The verbal jousting notching up the military tension between the two big powers strongly focused on US bases east of the Euphrates as the location chosen by Moscow for engaging the US in battle. Both sides were evidently girding up for this duel

And while Dunford was talking to reporters on September 9, Maj.-Gen Vladimir Savchenko of the Russian Center for Syrian Reconciliation (which is in charge of Syria’s de-escalation zones) claimed in a statement that two US Air Force F-15 jets had conducted strikes in the Deir ez-Zour “settlement of Hadjin” on Sept. 8, using banned phosphorus bombs. “Major fires were observed” and “information on victims and injured is being clarified,” said the Russian general. He stressed that the use of weapons with white phosphorus is prohibited by an additional protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention.

By this accusation, Moscow was clearly seeking to turn the tables on the US, France, the UK and Germany for their threat to hit back if the Syrian army again used chemical weapons against civilians. The next day, the US-led coalition spokesman issued a denial: “At this time, we have not received any reports of any use of white phosphorus. None of the military units in the area are even equipped with white phosphorus munitions of any kind.”

(The US air strike on Hajin aimed at an ISIS target, as revealed in the top item in this issue.)

The Trump administration hit back at Russian propaganda by leveling a leaked charge against its ally” President Bashar Assad. He was accused of having “approved the use of chlorine gas in the offensive for capturing the country’s last remaining rebel holdout in Idlib province,” according to information reaching the US.

Meanwhile, on the quiet, US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were acting to defuse the rising military tension with diplomacy. They asked their colleagues in the Kremlin to hold Assad back from using chemical weapons in Idlib – so far, without any sign that their request was heeded.

It is still not clear, despite a pause in the Idlib operation, how long will the two powers be content with verbal sparring before tipping over into a clash of arms? Both powers, as well as Iran, Syria, Israel, Britain, France and possibly Germany, were still on high alert on Thursday ready for the two rival camps in Syria to come to blows at some point.

DEBKA Weekly’s sources report the belief in various Middle East capitals that any conflagration in Syria would be the prequel to a joint US-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. (This conjecture is explored in a separate article.)

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