Where Will Escalation Over Syria Take Russia and the US?

The continuing escalation in Syria has led to both a worsening of US-Russian ties, including an end in cooperation on plutonium disposal, and the deployment of a new anti-missile system in Syria.

The increased intensity of signals in the US presidential administration of a desire for strikes against the Syrian military was once again showcased in the Washington Post as the US moves forward with its presidential election. As a result of this and previous signals, Russia has been forced to deploy advanced mobile anti-missile systems into Syria, capable of intercepting supersonic ballistic missiles, military expert Vladimir Yevseyev, Director of the Public Policy Research Center, told valdaiclub.com.

“The deployment of this battery is a sort of reminder to the US that they cannot launch missile strikes with impunity. This means intercepting not only cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk, which can be intercepted with other existing hardware, but rather warheads of conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles. The US has such warheads installed on the USS Clarke and USS Ohio,” Yevseyev said.

Yevseyev noted that the technical characteristics of the new system allow Russia to maintain an anti-missile deterrent in Syria that is capable of protecting the country from any level of aerial attack.

“The S-400 has a large target interception range, but it is limited in the speed of the ballistic missiles it can intercept to 2.5-3 kilometers per second. The Antey-2500 is capable of intercepting targets that move at a speed of up to 5 kilometers per second. The interception ceiling is the same, 25-30 kilometers,” he added.

Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center and Associate Publisher of The National Interest, told valdaiclub.com that further changes in Russia-US relations appear unlikely until January, when the next US president is inaugurated.

“In the US system, it is not easy to move rapidly to provide additional arms or training to the opposition. Indeed, the slow pace of these programs has undermined past US efforts to do this already. On top of this, US presidents are typically reluctant to burden their successors with expanded military commitments.”

Saunders noted that deliberate attacks against Syrian troops appear unlikely, considering that the US presidential administration called the attack in Deir ez-Zor an accident, and has generally resisted carrying out attacks against the Syrian military in the past five years.

In Deir ez-Zor, where the Syrian military is fighting ISIS, the US-led coalition bombed an airfield controlled by the Syrian military, killing over 60 Syrian soldiers.

“I expect that the administration is more likely to intensify its existing attacks on ISIS, to increase support for Iraq, which they can do more quickly than support for the Syrian opposition, and/or to look for other ways to express displeasure with Moscow, outside the Syrian conflict zone. Possibly through new sanctions or new limits on cooperation in other areas,” Saunders added.

According to Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director at the Center for Political-Military Analysis of the Hudson Institute, the United States did not fully comply with the now-suspended agreement on plutonium disposal, although Russia’s decision to suspend it is tied to the Syrian crisis. However, the agreement is not likely to have a significant impact on nuclear disarmament in the short term, as most matters will be decided following a policy review by both countries after the US election.

“I believe the current Russian and US presidential administrations have given up trying to work with each other in these and some other—but not all, fortunately—areas. I think that the Russian government is now waiting to see who the Americans elect as their next president and then will engage in the same type of policy review as the new US administration regarding Russia-US relations and what the two countries can realistically achieve going forward,” Weitz told valdaiclub.com.

Weitz noted that he is skeptical of Russian efforts to assist Syria. According to Yevseyev, such a victory could lead to displacement of terrorist groups to Turkey, and from there to Europe.

“What remains in doubt is whether, even with Russia’s continued military intervention, the Assad government can reconquer all of Syrian territory and force the terrorist groups to leave the country and the moderate Syrian opposition to accept the Assad government,” Weitz said.

According to Weitz, the US has likewise been unable to assemble a winning coalition with opposition fighters in Syria, as its intervention in the conflict has been even more limited than Russia’s.

“The Pentagon tried but failed to build a strong broadly based Syrian military group allied to the West that could stand its own against the Syrian government and the IS and al-Qaeda affiliates in the country. The US currently has only a limited number of advisers deployed in Syrian territory and has only recently expanded its bombing of terrorist targets,” Weitz added.

At the same time, voices among the US establishment’s liberal interventionist factions have called for greater intervention in Syria, which experts in both the US and Russia say could lead to a large regional war. One example is Steven Heydemann, nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and vice president of Applied Research on Conflict at the Unites States Institute of Peace, who gave a much more hawkish view to valdaiclub.com.

Basing his assertions on statements that mirror propaganda spread by Syrian jihadist groups on social media, Heydemann accused Russia of complicity in war crimes and said that many in his camp believe that the US needs to intervene to change conditions on the ground before new negotiations are conducted.

“Russia's direct complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity through repeated attacks on civilian targets including hospitals and schools, together with regime blockages of humanitarian relief and its theft of medical supplies from humanitarian convoys, have been no less damaging to US-Russian relations than has Russia's rejection of a negotiated settlement. Overall, these are not the bases on which productive diplomacy can occur.  In response, the US has sensibly withdrawn from its talks with Russia, and will take actions that reflect its new consensus about Russian aims in Syria,” Heydemann told valdaiclub.com.

Heydemann also said that he believes that Russia has intently worked to undermine the ceasefire it worked with the US to create as part of “what seems to be a Russian plan to force all of the Syrian opposition into the extremist camp and thus enable Russia and the regime to attack any opposition force indiscriminately.”

Hans-Joachim Spanger, Head of Research Group and member of the Executive Board of the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt told valdaiclub.com that it is possible that the US will get more involved in the Syrian conflict, although President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been restrained about ramping up involvement.

“There’s always been quite some pressure from Congress and the security apparatus to get more engaged. In present circumstances, after the diplomatic avenue has been closed, this pressure has created a chance to prevail, meaning in other words, and for instance US, that has been discussed for quite some time might deliver MANPADS to some of the opposition forces,” Spanger told valdaiclub.com.

The end of Russia-US cooperation on Syria is, however, a negative step, according to Irina Zvyagelskaya, senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.

“On both sides, the opposition and the government, confidence will grow that their goals can only be achieved through a military victory. In reality, this is a myth, imagining such a victory would mean either the opposition holding Aleppo, or the government forces taking the city. Both would lead to new victims, both are extremely difficult and protracted affairs, and victory on either side could end up being pyrrhic,” Zvyagelskaya told valdaiclub.com.

Zvyagelskaya also noted that the new situation destroys what was possibly the last avenue for Russia-US cooperation and display of common interests.

“Syria was the platform where we and the United States, despite difficulties in bilateral relations, were still able to find common or parallel interests. We could demonstrate to local forces that we have such an interests and that both the United States and Russia are ready to be earnest and tough to secure a political solution,” Zvyagelskata concluded.

As a result of the new low in US-Russian relations over Syria, it appears as though new interactions have no way to go but up. However, ongoing tensions and the current atmosphere of distrust on both sides also threatens to trigger a broader conflict, as liberal interventionists in the US appear intent on intervening in Syria at any cost.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.