Editorial: Russian Provocations Threatens an Escalation in U.S.-Russia Tensions in Syria

Image Credit: Sergey Guneev / Associated Press

By Team MEB

For close to a decade, the United States and Russia have been locked in a tense standoff in Syria, with each country backing rival factions in the country’s brutal civil war. In the last week, tensions between the two countries have escalated significantly, raising fears of a direct military confrontation between Russian and U.S. forces. 

The latest incident came after Russian forces launched an airstrike close to the al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria. The base, situated close to Syria’s border with Jordan, serves as a garrison for U.S. military instructors and is widely regarded as the last enclave for America’s military presence in Syria. 

According to U.S. officials, Russia’s airstrike targeted and damaged a combat installation attached to al-Tanf base. Russian officials have claimed the airstrike was intended to disrupt the operations of U.S.-backed Maghawir al-Thawra fighters in retaliation against a supposed attack on government-aligned troops. U.S. officials have expressed scepticism towards the Russian claim, with many viewing the provocation as a response to Washington’s open support for Ukraine in its ongoing resistance against Russian aggression.

In advance of the al-Tanf strike, U.S. forces were contacted by their Russian counterparts and warned that a combat operation would be conducted in the area. While there were no casualties amongst U.S. or coalition troops, the incident has been described by senior U.S. officials as a dangerous and unnerving escalation.

By providing U.S. forces with advance notice of the operation, Russia has been able to avoid accusations of directly targeting American soldiers. While this incident is not the first close call between Russian and American forces in Syria, it does point to a dangerous new dynamic in a conflict that once appeared to be in decline.

By far the most concerning aspect of the latest incident is the growing potential for miscalculation and misperception on both sides. By conducting an airstrike so close to al-Tanf, Moscow has signalled its willingness to indirectly target the American military presence in Syria. As both sides adjust to new realities on the ground, restraint and communication will be critical to avoid additional incidents.

Unsurprisingly, the dangerous uptick in tensions in Syria has raised questions over the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In particular, the developments have once again highlighted the complex and delicate relationship between the United States and Russia, two countries with drastically different strategic interests in the region. 

Amidst this tense climate, President Joe Biden has announced a long-expected and much-anticipated trip to the Middle East in July. During his visit, President Biden is scheduled to hold talks with several regional leaders, including Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Abdullah II of Jordan. This will be the first presidential visit to the Middle East since 2018 and there is no shortage of pressing regional issues on the agenda. Rising oil prices, a looming regional wheat crisis, and ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen are expected to be the focal point of the discussions.

President Biden’s renewed focus on the Middle East comes at a time when the United States is attempting to balance its commitment to its NATO allies and its fragile relationship with Russia in Syria. Washington has called for greater cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism, yet at the same time has emphasized the need for a credible military threat against Russia should they continue their aggression in Ukraine. 

At this critical juncture, Moscow’s provocations in Syria couldn’t have come at a worse time, with the heightened risk of escalatory confrontation threatening to throw a wrench in President Biden’s plans to strengthen the strategic relationship between the U.S. and its Sunni-majority partners. 

Alongside proposals to deepen cooperation with Israel, the U.S. has also signalled its intention to continue forging stronger ties with Jordan and shore up relations with Saudi Arabia. These efforts are a continuation of the administration’s broader campaign to counter Iranian hegemony and frustrate Tehran’s ambition to build a coalition of Shiite allies in the region.

In the past, Washington has relied heavily on its Sunni partners to help keep a lid on Syria’s conflict and stymie Iranian ambitions. Now, facing renewed tensions in Syria, these partners will require reassurance regarding American intentions in the region.

More than ever, the U.S. needs to find a way to balance its commitments to its allies and its relationship with Russia. The Middle East is facing a range of complex challenges, the resolution of which will require a concerted effort from the international community. The U.S. is in a position to help shape the response to these challenges, but only if it is able to leverage its influence without being pulled into regional conflicts. 

For the time being, it appears that Moscow and Washington will continue to walk a tightrope in Syria, with neither side willing to back down on their current course.