Following an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, the Syrian Civil War has come back into the public eye in Washington as President Trump attacks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an “animal” and promises an imminent decision on a strong response, floating military action. Debate has reemerged in Congress about whether the United States should intervene, to what extent, and whether the President has the legal authority to order new strikes in Syria at all. But should the United States strike further against Syria, it will need to consider an increasing possibility of coming into conflict with well-armed Russian military forces there, as tension with Russia over Syria increases and the President even raises the possibility of Russian confrontation.
Russia has poured military hardware into Syria since the war began, both for its own use and the regime’s. Among this weaponry are advanced Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) weapons, designed to make it difficult or impossible for an enemy to gain total control over a combat zone whether on land, at sea, or in the air. This includes weapons like the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, with at least two systems deployed in Syria as of January 2018. There are also reports of anti-ship weapons like the Oniks/Bastion-P being deployed in the country as of 2016. These two systems each have ranges of hundreds of kilometers, and significantly raise the stakes for the United States should it come into confrontation with Russian forces in Syria.
The United States does have systems that are less vulnerable to such weapons and carry less risk for US personnel—and has already utilized them. When the United States launched strikes on Syria last year in retaliation for another reported chemical weapons attack, it did so with cruise missiles fired from US warships at long distance—and warned Russian forces ahead of time of the incoming attack, taking great pains to avoid striking them. This is a repeat option for the United States that the President has already mentioned, with a guided-missile destroyer already operating in the area. Other less risky options include long-range missile strikes from bombers or strikes by stealth aircraft.
However, if action against Syria moves beyond isolated retaliatory strikes to a full-fledged campaign—such as in Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011—using only long-range or stealth weapons may not be possible. In a larger campaign with a fast tempo and a long list of targets, manned aircraft and other forces would likely be necessary. If the direct involvement of US personnel operating against Syrian regime targets with Russian forces in the vicinity is accompanied by a breakdown in communication with Russian forces in Syria and the general confusion and chaos of war, the risk of stumbling into a confrontation with the Russian military escalates dramatically.
This risk of confrontation is also heightened by Russian rhetoric and behavior. Moscow has already stated it would retaliate for any attack on its servicemen in Syria, with Kremlin supporters even raising the specter of a confrontation with the West in Syria escalating into a wider conflict. And as the American Security Project’s Russian Military Incident Tracker demonstrates, there has been an extremely high number of occasions in recent years where the Russian military has acted in an unsafe and aggressive manner against US and allied forces. Most recently, an armed Russian warplane reportedly flew at low altitude over a French warship in the Mediterranean Sea, violating international regulations in the process. If the Russian military were to end up on the receiving end of a US strike, intentionally or otherwise, its aggressive behavior and rhetoric raises serious concerns about the potential consequences that must be fully considered by policymakers.
If the United States is going to continue to launch strikes in Syria, policymakers need to seriously consider the capabilities of the Russian military, the risks and consequences of its potential involvement, and whether it is willing to accept those risks and is able to counter those capabilities if necessary. This counts both if US involvement is limited to occasional strikes in response to unacceptable behavior by the regime, but even more so if it decides to escalate strikes against regime forces and raises the possibility of coming into conflict with Russia. The United States cannot take for granted its ability to work around or avoid Russian weaponry, or that Russia may not respond. Policymakers owe it to US servicemen, citizens, and overall US national security that it takes Russian capabilities and the possibility of their use seriously.