On June 16, US and Russian fighter jets had a near-clash over Syria. The two American F-18 Hornet air-to-air fighter aircraft could not prevent Russia’s Su-34 Fullback bombers from hitting U.S.-backed rebels in southern region with a barrage of airstrikes. After the incident, Pentagon officials and Russian Ministry of Defence discussed steps to avoid accidents and misunderstandings in the Syrian air space

If President Barack Obama ever nurtured the secret desire to have one final eyeball-to-eyeball with Vladimir Putin before his presidency ends, it has to happen in Syria. The two militaries are tiptoeing around each other in Syria.

Russian Su-34 Fullback bombers hit US-backed “moderate” opposition fighters in southern Syria
Two Russian Su-34 Fullback bombers hit US-backed moderate” opposition fighters in southern Syria on June 16

It almost got serious on June 16 when two American F-18 Hornet air-to-air fighter aircraft took off from a carrier in the Mediterranean but failed to prevent two Russian Su-34 Fullback bombers from hitting US-backed “moderate” opposition fighters in the south of the country.

The hawkish opinion in America interpreted the incident as an in-your-face rejection of US military superiority by Russia. Moscow blandly explained that its pilots could not distinguish the “moderate” fighters from al-Qaeda jihadists of Nusra Front.

A high level video-conference ensued between senior Pentagon officials and Russian Ministry of Defence to discuss “the need to adhere to measures to enhance operational safety and avoid accidents and misunderstandings in the air space over Syria.”

Last week, again, there was a stunning media leak of a memo through the US state department’s so-called “dissent channel” calling for “a judicious use of standoff and air weapons (against the Syrian regime), which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”

Was it orchestrated ‘psywar’? The Russian media thinks so. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry since commended the “dissent memo” and hopes to meet its authors.

Equally, hardline opinion is cascading in the Russian-Iranian camps that Washington brilliantly conned Moscow into agreeing with the ceasefire in Syria in February, which provided a much-needed respite for opposition groups to recoup and regain some lost territories.

Putin has acted cautiously so far. The Russian strategy aims to expand the scope of ceasefire and bring about proximity between government forces and rebel groups, thereby shifting the locus to the negotiating table in Geneva.

A difficult decision now awaits Putin: Does Moscow “return” to the war, reversing the drawdown of forces ordered in mid-March? The impetus for a full-bodied intervention is obvious:

  • US has failed to fulfill its part of the ceasefire plan to separate the “moderate” groups from Nusra Front;
  • The expectation that the ceasefire would galvanize the peace track proved wrong;
  • Military balance is shifting adversely for Syrian government forces;
  • Russia’s allies – Iran and Hezbollah – are taking heavy casualties, and without robust air support, unable to make significant progress on war front;
  • US is either unable or unwilling to stop its allies from supplying opposition groups;
  • US shows no interest in an entente with Russia.

On the other hand, the risks of wading deeper into the Syrian conflict are weighing on the Russian mind. A military surge is senseless – unless followed up with a viable peace plan.

Russia is wary of a quagmire in Syria. It has tactical convergence with Iran, but strategic congruence is lacking.

Most certainly, two upcoming events are hugely consequential for Russian interests – NATO summit in Warsaw and European Union’s review of sanctions beyond July.

Above all, Putin would factor in that Obama’s focus would be to salvage his reputation through a signal military victory over Islamic State rather than seek confrontation over Syria with Russia.

Moscow ought to feel encouraged by the calm, rational explanation by the White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Monday apropos the very same “dissent memo’ that apparently excites Kerry. Earnest said:

  • The United States will not be successful, nor will anyone else, in imposing a military solution on the problems inside of Syria. That, I think, is a basic lesson that we learned after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was ordered by the previous (US) administration.

Arguably, Earnest transmitted an unequivocal, reassuring message to the Kremlin that their current dissatisfaction over the Syrian situation is mutual, but a full-scale escalation is not the answer, given the serious repercussions for regional and international security.

The White House seems to appreciate that Putin also faces similar challenges back home from the war party as Obama does.

Interestingly, the Pentagon readout on the video-conference with Russian Defence Ministry over the “almost-dogfight” between American and Russian aircraft in the Syrian skies last week also took care to tamp down ruffled feathers.

All in all, Russian and American forces in Syria are coming under compulsion to grope their way toward further collaboration, if only for no other reason than their mutual need to avoid confrontation and conflict.

However, the Obama administration can still make a crucial difference to the Syrian calculus by taking some tangible steps in the direction of constructive engagement of Iran that might help to change the narrative emerging in Tehran that the US has not lived up to its commitment to facilitate that country’s access to the international financial system.

To quote from an article in the New York Times on Monday co-authored by the well-known Iranian scholar-diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian,

  • If this narrative gains momentum and wipes out the sense of hope and optimism that the nuclear deal brought to Iran’s business community and its general public, we risk re-entering the tired old path of mistrust and antagonism — a lose-lose paradigm for Iran, the United States, the Middle East and beyond. It would be difficult for the two countries to cooperate on other global, regional or bilateral issues.

Hopefully, Washington will read the tea leaves correctly regarding the recent appointment of the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani as the senior coordinator for political, military and security affairs with Syria and Russia.

He will directly report to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This position has been specially created, and it can only mean that Tehran is putting the accent on politics. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has so far been on the driving seat on Syria.

It is useful to recollect that Shamkhani is a recipient of the Order of Abdulaziz al Saud, the highest medal of Saudi Arabia, which the late King Fahd had bestowed on him for his profound contribution to the improvement of Iran-Saudi relations.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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