Point of No Return

USA-Russia Escalation Looms in Syria

June 21, 2017

It is no secret that the conflict taking place in Syria has been one of the greatest recent sources of contention between the United States and the Russian Federation. Now, however, the tension over the Middle East situation may have peaked to an all-time high on Saturday 18 June, after an F-18 of the U.S. forces downed a Syrian Sukhoi Su-22, which was allegedly bombing targets belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) south of the town of Tabqah, a militia formed mostly by Curds and backed by Washington.

Russia's reaction did not take long and was not a mild one in tone, when Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov announced that the Russian Federation would unilaterally cease its participation to the Coalition and would consider any flying vehicle, manned or unmanned, over the operation theater west of the Euphrates river as a legitimate and possible target.

This briefly article explores some possible ramifications of these recent events.

Communication Breakdown

This is not the first time that contention arises about military operations carried out in the area. However, this is arguably the most serious incident that has occurred since the communication line between the Al Udeid Air Base (Coalition) in Qatar and Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, currently operated by Russian Forces, was established exactly to prevent this kind of situations after the signing of a 20 October 2015 memorandum.

In its statements, the Coalition declared that the line had indeed been used and the Russian forces had been informed of the attack. On the other hand, the Russian command maintained that they were left in the dark. The truth may lay somewhere in the middle, but where exactly is a wild guess with so little information available.

However, accusations were mutually exchanged and the Russians alleged that the United States with their actions in violation of the memorandum are favoring the advance of the Islamic States, while the Coalition replied on a similar tone that they are not fighting the Syrian regime, but any attack directed against the SDF will not be tolerated.


As it is often the case, this incident is likely the tip of the iceberg and the result of a longer chain of events in an overall articulated and complex situation that finally lead to this first stage of escalation.

Recently, Syrian forces gained control of al-Rusafa, near Raqqa, which in turn is an area where FDS are deployed and fighting IS forces. Coincidentally, this also near the location (Tabqah) where the Syrian fighter plane was downed. Even more coincidentally, Tabquah is in the same area where the United States are establishing their fifth military base in the region and understandably they likely do not look forward to Assad's forces thwarting that project. Indeed, the Syrian military is maneuvering in such a way to potentially interfere with American plans, as presidential forces appear to be trying to circle the Islamic State profiting of Russian air support: at east of Palmira, in the south along the border with Iraq and north of Raqqa.

The complications do not end there. The aforementioned southern border is another delicate point, considering that the Al Waleed border crossing (also known as al-Tanf) is controlled by anti-Assad entities, including the Coalition, and already in May of this year pro-Assad troops advancing toward the location were targeted by Coalition's air strikes. On the same note, both Raqqa and Tabqah are access points to Route 4, which leads directly to the district of Deir el-Zor, an extremely important one for oil extraction, where already in September 2016 Coalition's air raids killed around a hundred Syrian military. To top it off, in the same district Iranian missiles have recently struck IS-controlled locations in retaliation to terrorist attacks in Teheran.

Something's Gotta Give

These developments harbor the potential for escalation, that is irrefutable. However, an all out war remains an obscure possibility. Way worse incidents have happened and the world has not ended in a nuclear firestorm yet. What is more likely, though, is that one or more of the contestants will have to scale down on their plans. That process may take some time and in that period, as it has always been so far, the Islamic State will be the one to profit while others dispute.

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