US, Russia Mull Options Anew after Near-Air Collision over Syria
Last Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin shortened Bashar Assad’s days in power as Syrian ruler by publicly humiliating him (as described in a separate article in this issue). The Russian leader must now decide how to handle the next critical phase of his massive military intervention in the Syrian war, and primarily, how to get out of the morass while contriving a victorious finale – or at least the semblance of one. The matter is urgent in view of the outflow of millions of dollars per day.
But Putin’s problem is that his complicated objective may be out of reach.
As he tries to damp down the flames of war in Syria, both his allies and foes are stoking them up.
For example, it was announced in Tehran, on Monday June 20, that Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Al Qods Brigades, was en route to Syria. He hopes to build on his success in the battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah and resume command of the pro-Assad forces on the Aleppo front, where those same forces fell flat under his command in late April and the beginning of May.
The pro-Assad forces, including Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiite militias, have since gone from one reverse to another against Syrian rebels, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources strongly doubt that Soleimani’s luck in Syria has changed – especially in the north where, in Idlib province, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front has managed to surprise everyone by expanding the territories under its control. This Islamist group has done so well that its leaders are seriously considering establishing an “Islamic emirate” in competition with the “Islamic caliphate” of ISIS.
Syria would then be ‘blessed” with two jihadist statelets.
It is hard to imagine a more painful backlash from the efforts pursued by Washington, Moscow and Tehran to beat back radical Sunni Islamists from overrunning Syria.
While Putin is bent on retrenchment, President Barack Obama is deepening US military involvement in Syria.
American Special Operations troops are fighting alongside Kurdish YPG militia and the Syrian Democratic Forces in battles against ISIS around the northern city of Manbij, in violation of Turkey’s red lines.
But even victory on that front would merely herald the outcome of an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria, a recipe for more contentiousness.
So Obama, like Putin, faces a quandary, whereby a victory against ISIS in one spot is no closer to shifting the Syrian war closer to its end than did the Russian-led conquest of Palmyra four months ago.
To break the impasse, Obama this month tried infiltrating Syrian rebel forces, trained and armed by the US and Jordanian militaries, into southeastern Syria via the al-Tanf crossing near the Jordanian-Iraqi-Syrian border meeting-point. They were sent to open a second American front in the country, and so deny southern Syria the status of exclusive Russian domain, which was agreed between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Moscow on June 9.
But last Thursday, June 16, the Russian leader ordered an air strike to halt the pro-American rebel advance and force them to retreat to Jordan.
This was the first direct Russian-US air confrontation since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Pilots of US F18 fighters warned their counterparts in Russian Su-34 bombers to withdraw, and they did so. But while the American warplanes were refueling, the bombers returned and attacked a garrison of rebels near the border, and the rebels were pushed back into Jordan.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Obama and Putin now have three options:
1. A return to their original cooperation agreement reached before Russia’s September 2015 intervention, under which Syria was divided into two areas of influence separated by the Euphrates River: an American area extending east to the Iraqi border, and a Russian area extending west to the Mediterranean. The agreement has been broken a number of times by both sides.
2. A further troop buildup by both powers to finally end the war.
3. Maintaining the indecisive status quo which would amount to a fiasco for both presidents.