August 20, 2016

The impending showdown in Syria's skies

I appeared earlier today on CNN Newsroom - Martin Savidge in the anchor chair. Martin and I have been on the air together before - he is an excellent interviewer, and today was no exception.

The image of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year old Syrian child from the virtually-destroyed city of Aleppo, has gone viral across all media. Martin asked me if I thought this haunting image could impact us enough to actually bring about change, even a stop to the violence in Syria, or will we continue on as before?

Unfortunately, I hope for the former, but I believe the later to be true. Although the image has drawn attention to the horrors of the conflict that has defined Syria since 2011, the fighting has not subsided in the least. In fact, over the past few days, the situation has deteriorated even further.

The Russians continue their wide-scale air attacks, including what appear to be deliberate strikes on hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as obvious civilian targets such as markets, bakeries and even schools and mosques. See my earlier article, Russian Air Force targeting hospitals - war crimes, Mr. Kerry?

In the last few days, Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea have begun attacks on anti-regime rebel targets using sea-launched cruise missiles - adding to earlier use of similar cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea.

Additionally, Russian Tu-22M3M (NATO: Backfire C) strategic bombers have staged from the Iranian air base in Hamedan to mount attacks on mostly anti-regime targets in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, as well as targets of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the eastern province of Dayr al-Zawr. For more on the Russian use of this air base, see my article, Russian use of Iranian air base - makes military sense.

Fighting has now spread to the Kurdish-majority area of northeastern Syria. Two regime-held enclaves, one in the city of Qamishly and another in the city of Hasakah, have come under attack from elements of the People's Protection Units, usually referred to by their Kurdish abbreviation YPG.

The YPG is the armed force of the self-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria, or in Kurdish, Rojava. The group is primarily Kurdish, but also recruits Arabs, Assyrian/Syriac Christians, and even Turks and a few Westerners.

Hasakah and Qamishly enclaves in northeast Syria are marked by red dots

These enclaves are small holdouts far from Syrian regime lines and have been mostly resupplied by air and armed convoys. The attacks by the YPG coincide with the recent deployment of U.S. special operations forces working with a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of YPG and Arabs who are both anti-ISIS and anti-regime.

It is here in the northeastern part of Syria that we may see what many of us have been warning about since the beginning of U.S. air operations against ISIS targets in Syria in 2014, and exacerbated by the Russian air intervention in 2015.

At some point, fighter aircraft of the United States, its coalition allies (including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, etc.), Russia and Syria will be operating in the same airspace - it is inevitable that there will be a confrontation.

That time may be nigh. With the expansion of the fighting into northeastern Syria, the Syrian Air Force has twice sent their Su-24M2 (NATO: Fencer D) fighter-bombers to attack YPG targets they believe are threatening the pro-regime areas of Hasakah.

While the U.S.-led coalition has up until not now committed force to oppose Syrian air attacks, the situation in the Hasakah area is different - there are American troops on the ground nearby.

The U.S. Department of Defense has warned the Syrians against air strikes in this area, via a variety of communications channels, including advising the Russians to notify the Syrians that any potential threat to American forces will be met with force. The Syrians should make no miscalculations about the capability of the U.S. Air Force to neutralize any threat posed by the Syrian Air Force. The only question is the political will to actually commit that force. American fighters, including the state-of-the-art fifth generation stealth F-22 Raptor, have begun protective patrols in the area should a response be required.

That said, the Syrians show no signs of backing down. It is very possible that in the next few days, we could see an air battle between Syrian Air Force and U.S. Air Force pilots in the skies of northeastern Syria. If and when that happens, a whole new series of issues will come to the forefront, challenges for which I hope the U.S. Central Command is prepared. Of course, the main question - will the Russian Air Force come to the aid of their Syrian allies?

What we do not need is an aerial battle between American and Russian pilots in the skies of Syria. This is exactly why the United States and Russia have established an air operations coordination center in Jordan.

Let's hope it works.