Russia has warned the United States not to intervene militarily in Syria against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, threatening that it may shoot down any aircraft attempting to launch strikes.
In a bluntly worded statement, a spokesman for Russia’s defense ministry warned that Russia and the Syrian government had deployed sufficient air defenses to block any potential attacks.
It follows rumbling in Washington that the White House may be considering launching limited strikes against some Syrian regime military targets as an alternative option for moving forward in the Syrian conflict after the collapse of U.S.-Russian cease-fire negotiations.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the Pentagon was presenting the Obama administration with the option of strikes at meetings this week. The strikes, which the Joint Chief of Staffs and the CIA are now said to favor, according to the Post, would see missiles fired at Assad air force bases, intended to punish the regime for its failure to abide by the cease-fire, hamper attacks against civilians and pressure it and Moscow to begin negotiating again.
Although, the strikes are now back on the table, President Obama is still very unlikely to approve them, according to administration officials speaking to the Post, as well as former State Department officials and outside analysts.
Moscow though has sought to head-off any U.S. intervention. Major-General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defense ministry spokesman, directly addressed the reports in a briefing on Thursday, when he warned that Russia may shoot down any aircraft attacking Syrian government forces.
Although Konashenkov did not directly say Russia would shoot down American aircraft, his point was unambiguous.
“I would recommend our colleagues in Washington to thoroughly consider the possible consequences of the realization of such plans,” Konashenkov said, before listing the array of anti-air defences deployed in Syria and saying they would be used if Assad’s or Russian forces were attacked.
Konshenkov warned that Russia had deployed advanced S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to its bases in Syria, noting that their range “can be a surprise for any unidentified flying objects.”
“It follows to really be conscious that there will hardly be time in the calculations of the Russian air-defense units to clarify on the “direct line” the precise flight-plan of missiles and who they belong to,” Konashenkov said, referring to the hotline already established by the U.S. and Russia to prevent clashes between their aircraft conducting strikes in Syria.
The strikes described by the Post would be launched from ships and aircraft belonging to the international anti-ISIS coalition assembled by the U.S., conducted covertly to avoid legal blocks as well as direct clashes with the Russians.
Konashenkov, however, suggested Russia would target any unidentified aircraft attacking Syrian government targets and warned "American strategists" not to assume a covert intervention would go unanswered. “The illusions of dilettantes about the existence of 'stealth' aircraft may encounter a disappointing reality,” he added. Konashenkov also warned that Russian troops were now widely deployed across Syria, implying any strikes could hit them, pulling the U.S. into conflict with Russia.
Konashenkov referred again to a strike on Sept. 17, when U.S. military aircraft killed dozens of Syrian government troops accidentally. The Pentagon has said the strike was a mistake, but Konashenkov said Russia was prepared to prevent “any similar ‘mistakes’” against Russian troops.
The White House has been examining more so-called “kinetic” options since the cease-fire deal brokered by Secretary of State, John Kerry with Russia collapsed at the end of September amid mutual recriminations and Russian and Syrian government aircraft launched a ferocious air assault on the besieged city of Aleppo.
The bombardment has been described as among the most intense of the conflict, with Western countries accusing Russia and the Syrian government of committing war crimes and prompting calls for the U.S. to intervene more muscularly to pressure the Kremlin and Assad to halt them and begin negotiating again. Kerry this week formally suspended the talks with Russia, with the State Department saying there was now nothing to talk about. The rapid unraveling of the talks has sent the Obama administration back to the drawing board on Syria. The intensity of the Russian strikes, even as the cease-fire foundered, has persuaded some observers that without hard pressure Moscow and Assad will never negotiate in good faith. Former State Department officials and Syria watchers have suggested that the strikes could take the form cruise missiles hitting Syria air facilities and cratering runways to cripple Assad’s air force. Besides the strikes, the U.S. is said to be considering providing rebels inside Syria with heavier weaponry.
While it remains unclear whether Russia would actually down an American plane attacking a target in Syria, the possibility threatened to push the conflict out into a new stage, with Russia and the U.S. placed in the most direct stand-off of anytime since the Syrian war began.
The odds, however, that the Obama administration will approve military intervention in Syria still seem very long.
“I will be shocked,” Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, said in an interview earlier his week.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, President Obama has made it clear he is reluctant to use direct force against the Assad regime. Although coming close in 2013 when Assad crossed the much criticised “red-line” over chemical weapons, the White House called off strikes after Moscow forced Assad to hand over his chemical arsenal. In recent interviews, the president and administration officials have suggested that reluctance has only become stronger as Syria has slid further into chaos and Russia and Iran have increased their involvement.
“To me it’s remarkable that the administration is even considering it again,” said Ford, who resigned discontented by the administration's unwillingness to provide more support to rebels. “Because it’s going to be out of office in three and a half months. And you know Obama doesn’t really want to do it.”
“But the drums are loud over here,” he said.
Ford and other former State Department officials said they believed some new steps were relatively likely, such as sanctions on Russia, as well as increased and heavier weapons to the rebels, though they expressed doubt the administration would dramatically change its tactics.
“Sanctions could happen,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former adviser to the State Department on Syria, who also left frustrated by the U.S.’ refusal to back the rebels more heavily. “What’s really needed is anti-aircraft defence and I just don’t know that the United States is ready to lift its veto on that.”
“There are things the Americans could do that would certainly get the Russians attention and cause them to re-engage,” Ford said, suggesting the U.S. could consider supply 3 or 4 anti-aircraft missiles for bringing down a small number of Russian military planes.
“That wouldn’t be so hard,” he said.
Such steps would be intended to return the Russians to negotiations at some point, observers said. Even as Russia has threatened the U.S. and accused it of shielding terrorists in Aleppo, Russian officials have held out the possibility that talks could one day resume. Former diplomats noted that the U.S. had suspended not terminated its contacts with Russia over Syria.
“This is not a transformative or a terminative event.” said David Aaron Miller, a former long-term State Department adviser on Middle East negotiations, referring to the collapse of the cease-fire talks. “It’s another twist."
“In the Middle East, something can be dead or something will be dead and buried. And if you ask me, the notion of a political process with the Russians is not dead and buried.”