Dangerous confrontations between Russia and the United States in the skies over Syria point to an escalating shadow war as Russian President Vladimir Putin suffers more losses in Ukraine.
Experts warn that Putin is looking to strike against the U.S. for supporting Ukraine in its defensive war, with Moscow focusing its retaliatory actions in the Middle East to avoid a wider conflict with NATO in Europe.
“We have seen, clearly since at least March of this year, a clear escalation of tensions, driven largely by Russian provocations of the U.S. in Syria,” said Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Middle East and North Africa center.
“Those heightened tensions derive directly from the war in Ukraine, where I think the Russians are looking to stick a finger in the U.S. eye, provoke the U.S. to the extent that they can, in a place that’s a bit removed from the Ukraine conflict arena itself.”
Ukrainian forces are slowly regaining territory that Russia captured when it launched its full-scale invasion against the country in February 2022. In an effort to ramp up pressure on Ukraine’s backers, Russia has abandoned a deal that allowed for the export of grain from Ukraine’s ports and increased attacks on Ukrainian civilian and agricultural infrastructure.
Putin has often framed his war of aggression against Ukraine as a defensive war against the West, and lashed out at the U.S. for its tens of billions of aide to Kyiv in military equipment and economic support.
Now his frustration is translating into dangerous confrontations with the U.S. in Syria.
In back-to-back incidents at the end of July, Russian warplanes fired flares that reportedly damaged two U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones — weaponized, unmanned aircrafts that cost more than $30 million each.
This followed what the Pentagon said were four other instances last month of Russian aircraft dangerously crossing over the flight path of American warplanes in Syria’s skies.
In a similar incident in March, a Russian jet clipped the wing of an American Reaper drone above the Black Sea, causing it to crash in a move that the Biden administration called “unsafe and unprofessional.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, during a press conference in Australia late last month, issued a warning against Putin to rein in his air force.
“We call upon the Russian leadership to make sure that they issue guidance to their troops to abide by the laws of the sky and make sure that they cease this irresponsible behavior,” he said.
“We’ll continue to engage using the established channels to convey our concern, and we’ll continue to engage senior leadership, as appropriate.”
Putin has said publicly he does not seek a direct clash with U.S. forces in Syria, and his military officials have put the blame on American forces for provocations.
“We are always ready for any scenario, but no one wants this,” Putin was quoted as saying July 30 by the Russian, state-owned news agency TASS.
“Our heads of certain departments communicate directly with each other, have the opportunity to consult on any crisis situation. This shows that no one wants clashes.”
About 900 American forces are deployed in northeast Syria conducting counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and alongside Kurdish forces, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF controls a region that is semi-autonomous from Syria’s embattled leader Bashar Assad, who has the backing of Moscow.
In 2015, the U.S. and Russia agreed on a set of guidelines establishing safety in Syria’s skies and setting up a direct line of communication to avoid confrontations and conflict, in particular among warplanes — the so-called deconfliction hotline.
“It is in our collective interests to keep the autonomous administration in northeast Syria secure and stable,” Sinam Mohamad, head of mission at the Syrian Democratic Council to the U.S., told The Hill in a statement.
“The SDF continues to fight ISIS in the region. We hope that the coordination between both Russian and American [militaries] continues to keep the stability and security of the region in general and northeast Syria in particular.”
But some experts say the Biden administration is exercising too much restraint in Syria and other areas where the U.S. confronts Russia.
“We certainly could do it back at them, but we don’t,” said Mary Beth Long, who served as assistant secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.
“What really happens is, you issue orders to your pilots and NATO folks, to basically be careful and do everything possible not to allow them to provoke you, because they want an incident in order to have an excuse to escalate,” she added.
“So what we really do, although we don’t admit it, is we put our airmen and our sailors at higher risk, because they basically have to absorb these things. It’s a safety issue, it’s an emotional issue. It’s tough on these guys.”
Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, described Russia’s actions in Syria as “a serious escalation,” and the U.S. response as “ensuring that we can protect ourselves, issuing stern protests and a call for Russia to stop.”
But Borshchevskaya said she wants to see the U.S. carry out a response that goes farther in pushing back against the Russians.
“In terms of what specifically needs to be done, that thus far remains unclear. In my view, until Russia pays a cost for this escalation, they are not going to stop,” she said.
“You can see how when costs are not imposed on Russia for escalatory behavior in one theater, they eventually up the ante and do that in another theater. And Ukraine and Syria are two primary spots of, what we would call, great power competition between Russia and the United States.”
Still, she said the U.S. could look to send a more robust military signal and would be justified in acting out of self-defense.
“From military terms, when you think of rules of engagement, if you act in an unprofessional manner and if you don’t heed warnings, sometimes you can act in self-defense and that does not lead to war.”
She pointed to a 2018 incident in Syria where U.S. forces engaged in a firefight against soldiers from the Russian private military group Wagner, which was attacking American positions alongside Syrian forces supporting Assad.
The Pentagon reportedly said at the time that the U.S. was acting in self-defense, after calls for their Russian counterparts to call off the assault — which were made through the deconfliction line — failed to succeed.
The firefight reportedly lasted four hours, with hundreds of Wagner mercenaries and Syrian soldiers killed. No Americans were killed or wounded.
“It didn’t lead to a war with Russia,” Borshchevskaya said.
But Russian officials denied at that time they exercised any control or influence over Wagner, playing down conflict with the U.S.
“A direct military response to Russian forces carries greater risk, and it is understandable that the U.S. is being careful in its public messaging,” Borshchevskaya added.
“Still, a military response, carried out in a careful and creative way, could send a message to Moscow that the U.S. is willing to impose costs on Russia for its reckless behavior, and serve as a more effective deterrent against future escalation.”
Yacoubian, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said an important signal to Russia from the U.S. is its commitment to partnering with the SDF and conducting counter-ISIS missions in Syria. She also pointed to recent U.S. deployments of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and F-22 fighter jets to the Syrian theater that arrived in May and June, respectively.
“I think what we’re seeing by the U.S. is an effort to signal the Russians not so much with forces on the ground, but with military equipment being sent into Syria,” she said.
“Continuing to signal through our partnership on the ground with the Syrian Democratic Forces, that we are here to stay, I think that’s perhaps the most important thing we can do.”
Yacoubian added that Russia is weakened because of its nearly 18-month war in Ukraine, but that doesn’t lessen the danger it poses across the world.
“I think the Russians are looking to cause problems and dilemmas for the U.S. wherever they can, understanding they have limited ability to do that,” she said.
“They’re lashing out. How successful they can be is a whole other question. So, this is a weak Russia, but a dangerous Russia as a result of its weakness.”