In a previous column the implications of leading from behind and the Russian escalation of support for Syria’s president Assad were discussed. In that article the question was raised as to whether the US would protect its anti-Assad allies in northern Syria. The answer to that question may be a little clearer today. It may also suggest a slippery escalation slope.
The administration recently announced several deployments that may be responding to the Russian threat to its anti-Assad allies, while in themselves causing Senators and Congressmen on both sides of the aisle to question the efficacy or existence of the strategy against ISIS.
The deployment of 50 Special Forces troops to train the anti-Assad allies and to facilitate the use of air assets and the safe delivery of supplies has been questioned as too little too late. However, one needs to ask a deeper question about this deployment: Are these troops really meant to be a deterrent to prevent the Russians from continuing their air attacks against these forces? The Russian air attacks have been primarily focused on non-ISIS opponents of Assad.
The deterrent theory would suggest that the Russians would be unwilling to attack the forces that might have US troops accompanying them for fear of escalating into a US-Russian conflict. This argument has some merit on the face of it. However, the deterrent argument suggests that the 50 troops are expendable in the bigger strategic schema.
cThe recent Russian attacks near Turkey that resulted in the shoot down of a Russian fighter bomber my belie this theory. However, now that the Russians are providing air escorts to their fighters may increase the probability of an inadvertent engagement.
A second deployment slightly reduces the expendability argument. The US has also deployed a squadron of F15Cs to Turkey. The F-15Cs are not used for support of ground operations. The dual engine fighter is designed for air defense i.e. to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft. Their presence might mean that the US is prepared to provide air cover for the troops on the ground.
Interestingly, the Russians have also introduced air –defense fighters into their air assets operating in the Syrian theater. They are now operating out of four bases—not the original one. They have provided ground based air defense missiles to protect those bases and deployed long range artillery and multiple rocket launchers outside of the heavily guarded bases (Troop strength is estimated to have doubled from 2000 to 4000). The number is probably even higher with the recent deployments of air defense missile systems.
The Russians are not taking any chances of being attacked on the ground or from the air. Do the Russians not trust their Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies? Are the preparing to escalate the fight and want to protect against a US reaction? These are both questions worthy of serious consideration.
The recent Russian and US deployments are an escalation of assets committed to the Syrian theater. However, these deployments were made before the downing of the Russian passenger plane over the Sinai. ISIS is claiming responsibility for the downing of the plane. If this is true, will the Russians respond against ISIS? Will they change their targets in Syria?
Given the investment that the Russians have in their present strategy in Syria it is doubtful that they will react to the aircraft downing by attacking ISIS in Syria. This is not to suggest that they will not attack ISIS resources elsewhere—in the Sinai or elsewhere. They may even help the Egyptians find and attack ISIS affiliates in the Sinai.
The entire middle-east is presently a set of situations, which have an increased potential for miscalculation, misinterpretation, or over-reaction that can lead to unintended conflicts—the slippery slope.