During the past six months, the U.S. and Russia came close at least three times to a direct military clash in Syria with unpredictable consequences, including possible use of nuclear weapons. Each time unthinkable disaster was avoided at the last minute, but no one knows if we will be lucky again the next time.
The most recent near-miss happened when the Syrian army, supported by the Russian air force, prepared for an offensive on Idlib province - the last major stronghold of the so-called rebels, primarily consisting of many varieties of al Qaeda offshoots and allies.
Washington, London and Paris objected and threatened Damascus and Moscow with a severe response if chemical weapons were used. American naval vessels, supported by British and French ships, gathered in the eastern Mediterranean.
Media reported that extensive target lists were already compiled.
Meanwhile, Moscow assembled its own naval power in the area, promising counterstrikes against attacking air and surface platforms.
As the world waited for the showdown to begin, events took a sudden and unexpected turn.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced an agreement to separate the warring sides in Idlib and to sort out “rebel” groups willing to abide by a ceasefire from diehard militants.
For a brief moment, the Russia-Turkey agreement seemed to calm things down. The Syrian offensive was postponed while Ankara was given a chance to insert its forces into Idlib to sort out the good terrorists from the bad ones. The trigger for a possible clash between nuclear powers seemed to be averted – for now.
Then, right on the heels of the Putin-Erdogan agreement, Israeli F-35 fighters hit what were claimed to be Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Latakia province, not far from the Russian air base at Khmeimim. The Russians say they received Israeli warning of the attack via a de-confliction hotline only a minute before it took place.
A Russian Ilyushin-20 electronic surveillance plane returning to Khmeimim had no time to take evasive action and was downed by a Syrian S-200 Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system, which could not distinguish its identity. Fifteen Russian servicemen died. Moscow claims the Israelis deliberately used the Ilyushin as a shield for its fighters.
Israel claims its fighters were back home before the Russian plane was hit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called Mr. Putin to explain the mishap and dispatched his air force chief to Moscow to provide technical details. Publicly, Mr. Putin seemed to soften the charges against Israel, calling it a “tragic event,” but also pledged to make sure it would not happen again.
Action was not long in coming. Within two weeks Moscow will install its more sophisticated S-300 system in Syria. The new system will be equipped with “friend-or-foe” capability that could have identified the Ilyushin.
More significantly, the deployment will establish a flexible, unofficial Russian no-fly zone via electronic warfare capabilities to suppress satellite navigation, onboard radar systems, and communications of aircraft attacking Syrian territory within a 250-kilometer land and sea radius, which covers all of Israel.
National Security Adviser John Bolton called the S-300 a serious escalation. But isn’t the more relevant question what the U.S. is still doing mucking about in Syria in the first place?
President Trump has repeatedly said he wants to get out. Evidently, he’s the only one in his administration who feels that way. Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicates that the U.S. will remain militarily in Syria indefinitely, supposedly with the sole purpose of ensuring the permanent defeat of ISIS.
Mr. Bolton is at least a little more candid, with the suggestion that Americans will stay as long as any Iranian forces remain in Syria, adding that this includes all Iranian allies and militias like Hezbollah. This means effectively either permanently or pending regime change in Damascus, or Tehran, or both.
Meanwhile, several thousand U.S. forces remain stuck in Syria.
As long as they stay there another round of nuclear chicken with Russia is likely. What “America First” national objectives justify such a risk?
In his book “Republic In Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition,” professor David Hendrickson from Colorado College argues that America’s outsized military spending and global commitments undermine rather than uphold international order.
He continues saying that instead of claiming a superior role as judge, jury and executioner, the United States needs restraint rather than braggadocio.
This is exactly he policy that President Trump pledged to implement during his election campaign and this is one of the main reasons that American people put him in the White House.
However, the big question remains: Will he deliver? What happens next in Syria may give us the answer.
Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow.