The U.S. military is still confronting Russian pilots over Syria

“It’s a game of poker, and the ante is going up."
Jeff Schogol Avatar
Russian fighter jet
A Russian Su-35 Flanker fighter jet is seen maneuvering unprofessionally within 2,000 feet of a U.S. Air Force fighter jet during an intercept in Coalition Force airspace over Syria on April 18, 2023. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jermaine Ayers)

The United States and Russia are moving dangerously close to a confrontation in Syria, where Russian aircraft are harassing U.S. aircraft and ground forces.

“We continue to see reckless, unprovoked, and unprofessional behavior by the Russian Air Force while interacting with U.S. aircraft in Syria,” said Air Force Col. Michael Andrews, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command. “There have been several unsafe and unprofessional interactions by the Russian air force just in July that defy established norms and protocols.”

Among the most recent incidents over Syria: A Russian SU-35 jet fighter flew into the path of a U.S. MC-12 turboprop surveillance plane on July 16, forcing the American aircraft to fly through the Russian fighter’s turbulence; A Russian surveillance plane spent “an extended period of time” over the al-Tanf garrison, where U.S. troops are based, on July 14;  Russian aircraft repeatedly harassed MQ-9 Reapers earlier this month, including during a July 7 mission that killed Usamah al-Muhajir, whom U.S. officials have described as a leader with the Islamic State group, or ISIS.

“We urge Russian forces in Syria to cease this reckless behavior and adhere to the standards of behavior expected of a professional air force so we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Andrews told Task & Purpose on Monday.

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Going back to the Cold War, the Russians have a long history of acting provocatively around U.S. forces, and that’s what prompted the Soviet Union and the United States to reach the Incidents at Sea agreement in 1972 that dictates how both countries’ ships and aircraft should interact, said retired Marine Col. Mike Samarov, who managed a team for planning Russia, Europe, and NATO strategy and policy that advised the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

MEDITERRANEAN SEA (May 26, 2020) Two Russian Su-35 aircraft unsafely intercept a P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft assigned to U.S. 6th Fleet over the Mediterranean Sea May 26, 2020. The intercept was determined to be unsafe and unprofessional. (U.S. Navy photo)

“This is a longstanding technique, and it’s very much signaling,” Samarov told Task & Purpose. “The Russians ratchet up the pressure when they’re unhappy with us and dial it back when things are more stable.”

At the moment, the Russians are unhappy with the United States for providing Ukraine with billions of dollars of military support, but they also want to push U.S. forces out of Syria and increase their influence in Africa, Samarov said.

The Russians have also shown they are willing to take big risks during encounters with U.S. forces, Samarov said.

“They believe – whether it’s true or not – that they are willing to push such an encounter further than we are,” Samarov said. “And so, they have the advantage because of that, they believe.”

Since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been working with Syria and Iran to drive U.S. forces out of Syria, said Brian Carter, the Salafi-Jihadi Movement Team Lead and an analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

The Russian air force’s continuing harassment of U.S. forces in Syria is part of that plan, Carter told Task & Purpose.

“Russia and Iran may calculate that the risk of confrontation is low because of US domestic politics and its aversion to additional conflict in the Middle East,” Carter said. “Both Russia and Iran have learned from U.S. withdrawals from Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2021 that the U.S. will withdraw forces from low levels of gradual military pressure over time.”

By acting increasingly provocative towards U.S. aircraft and ground forces in Syria, Russian pilots are also striking back against the United States for its support of Ukraine, said retired Army Maj. Ray Finch, a former Russian foreign area officer in the Army.

Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepts mq-9 reaper drone black sea
A Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepts an U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea on March 14, 2023. (U.S. Air Force)

Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin is up for reelection in March 2024 – his victory is likely a formality – and his public approval ratings would rise if a Russian fighter downed a U.S. aircraft over Syria, said Finch, a lecturer of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas.

“It’s a game of poker, and the ante is going up,” Finch said. “I would not be surprised if there would be a direct engagement.”

Even though the Russians would deny that any such incident took place, the Russian public would be able to read between the lines to understand that their military had scored a victory against the Americans, Finch said.

But it is unclear how the United States or Russia might respond if their forces battled each other in Syria, he said. Although U.S. airpower pounded mercenaries with Russia’s Wagner Group private military company during a 2018 battle in Syria, those private military contractors were not regular Russian troops.

“The risk of real escalation is growing,” Finch said.

However, it’s also possible that the Russians are trying to keep tensions with the U.S. forces in Syria simmering below the level of a full conflict, said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. military’s lopsided victory in 2018 over Wagner mercenaries provides a good example of what a battle between American and Russian forces in Syria might look like, Lord told Task & Purpose. In that case, Russia’s defense ministry disavowed any knowledge or control of the mercenaries attacking U.S. troops, and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered that the enemy forces be annihilated.

It appears that the Russians are trying to remind the United States that security issues between the two countries present a “multi-theater concern” that extends beyond Ukraine, Lord said.

“If ultimately, I think, the Russians wanted to provoke an actual military engagement with U.S. forces in Syria, they know how to do it,” Lord said. “They’ve had every opportunity to literally pull the trigger – and don’t. That said, when you put so many forces into such a close proximity, there is always the risk of miscalculation or something happening.”

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