Tensions in Syria Spread Across the Region
By Vrinda Gupta | July 3, 2017
Largely hidden from domestic news coverage amid the swirling controversy of healthcare reform, tensions in Syria have continued to rise. On Monday evening, the White House released a terse statement promising a “heavy price” for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime after identifying “potential preparations for another chemical attack.” Relations between U.S. and Russian military forces in the region have grown even more strained after the shoot down of a Syrian Su-22 jet near the Euphrates by a U.S. Navy F/A-18 on June 18. This was the first time in nearly two decades that a manned aircraft has been downed by a U.S. military fighter.
In the aftermath, the Russian Federation accused the United States of a “flagrant violation of international law” and announced its intention to withdraw from a conflict resolution hotline used by American and Russian military officials in the region. The following day an F-15E belonging to the U.S. Air Force shot an Iranian drone out of the sky. In both strikes the United States accused the aircraft of posing a threat to coalition ground forces. These incidents demonstrate the complex nature of ground operations in Syria, as America and its allies work to combat ISIS while attempting to support anti-Assad rebels.
The region’s violent civil war has drawn myriad conflicting powers from across the region and the globe, each with conflicting goals. Syria’s strongman leader Bashar al Assad works to keep power, supported by Russian armed forces who seek to protect not only their ally but also the military bases that allow them to project power in the area. Iran is another key ally, supplying valuable resources including thousands of soldiers in support of the Assad regime, which it sees as essential to expanding Shiite control in the region.
Saudi Arabia seeks to overthrow Assad as part of the ongoing regional power struggle between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom has supported anti-Assad rebels in the region and in an active member in the U.S.-led coalition to eliminate ISIS. As the Islamic State loses ground and power in the region, direct conflict between the Sunni regime and the rebels will only become more frequent. This further risks drawing the international backers of both sides into direct conflict. The Russian Federation raises alarms as it moves more military hardware into the region. In recent weeks, the country has deployed additional jet aircrafts to its bases in the region, supplanting other forces such as advanced radars and missile defense systems. The advanced S-400 missile system, should it be used, poses a grave threat to the American and coalition air power. Especially since the June 18 shoot down, the nation has threatened to track and possibly target any aircrafts operating east of the Euphrates.
All eyes are on the Trump Administration, which has shown a willingness to be more active in engaging Assad directly after an April 6 strike against a Syrian airfield, launching fifty-nine cruise missiles in a response to a previous chemical attack. The Al Shayrat airfield targeted in that strike is reported to be the very same location where the White House suspects chemical activity is now occurring. Despite the missile attack, the airbase remains operational and Assad’s chemical weapon capabilities at that location appear to remain intact. The statement by the White House and a tweet by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley asserting that the U.S. will also hold Iran and Russia accountable has set the stage for potentially increased U.S. military involvement in the region. The question now is whether the Trump Administration seeks to further escalate tensions in the region and whether the Assad regime will continue to engage in chemical warfare in the face of this threat.