The conflict in Ukraine suggests that the Kremlin wants to demonstrate its power in other regions where its main opponent, the US, is involved. Syria offers great opportunities for this.
The Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General recently released a report revealing the Russian military’s increasing violations of the bilateral deconfliction protocols established in the Syrian arena to prevent unforeseen clashes between Russian and US armed forces deployed in the war-ravaged country.
At the very least, the oversight structure has recorded that the last three months of 2021 were "rich" in such incidents when compared to previous quarters.
The Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent – found that the majority of Russian violations in Syria "were ground-based”, while the number of similar "exploits" by Russian army personnel in airspace has significantly decreased. However, according to these estimates, Moscow moved its advanced Su-35 fighters for the first time on a temporary basis to the area of Qamishli, which has become "the main logistical hub" for them in the northeast of the country.
Not only is the Pentagon alarmed by Russia's systematic compromise of deconfliction protocols, but its servicemen have been found by the agency to be trying to create an atmosphere of pressure on the US-led coalition forces.
"The Russian military has made significant efforts to share strategic messages and to conduct information operations aimed at discrediting the coalition, as well as at creating and confirming its image as a reliable partner in the region," the report said.
In this respect, the Russian mission does not differ much from the pro-Iranian regulars supporting the Syrian regime. A study by the Office of the Inspector General shows that in the last three months of 2021, forces affiliated with Tehran have become a greater threat to US troops. As an example, the supervisor cited October's drone attacks on US military positions near Al Tanf. Iran and its satellites were responsible.
Take it out on Syria
Given the Russian leadership's adventurous recognition of the independence of the ORDLO— Donetsk and Luhansk, as they are referred to as the “temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine" — and the deployment of a Russian contingent to eastern Ukraine, there is every reason to expect that the stakes may be raised in other regions where Moscow and Washington's interests clash.
There is little doubt that these decisions will probably be accompanied by the same concentrated style of "talk of the terms”. The Syrian dossier under these circumstances offers ample room for testing a wide range of "persuasive means" peculiar to the Kremlin.
Speaking at a Senate confirmation hearing for the post of chief of US Central Command, Lieutenant General of the Army Michael Kurilla noted: "If Russia invades Ukraine, it may not hesitate to act as a 'spoiler' in Syria. The military commander summarised that the US now faces "a new era of strategic rivalry with China and Russia, which is not limited to one geographic region”. So, Washington perceives that the conflict may become trans-regional.
In the last years of Donald Trump's presidency, Russian and US militaries regularly clashed on the highways of north-eastern Syria. Not only have Russian servicemen tried to force their US colleagues out of certain population centres, but also to maximise the propaganda effect: Kremlin-loyal media disseminated videos of Russian servicemen cutting the roads of American armoured vehicles and coming out to lecture them about respecting "Syrian sovereignty”.
Another country that is also worried about the integrity of deconfliction protocols with the Russian side now is Israel, which calls itself part of the Western world and therefore cannot stage an open demarche against the White House sanctions decisions.
Unofficially, the local defence establishment says that the Joe Biden administration will have to have a separate explanation of why the Israelis will not be able to join the pressure measures, let alone refusing to coordinate with the Russian army in Syria.
Main theatre of conflict
Speaking to TRT Russian, Michael Kimmage, a professor and chair of the History Department at The Catholic University of America and former supervisor of the Russian and Ukrainian files in the State Department's Office of Political Planning, expressed doubt over the fact that Syria would be a major theatre of conflict between the US and Russia in the coming months.
The West will respond with sanctions to the recognition of the ORDLO, but if a broader war between Ukraine and Russia breaks out, those restrictions will be tougher, the analyst pointed out.
"Russia will find ways to get back at the West for these sanctions," Kimmage said.
“It is quite possible that the escalation of the crisis will include elements of cyber warfare between Russia and the West. The main theatre of this friction will be Europe because it is closest to Ukraine. This is the territory in which an unpredictable conflict will take place. Of course, there will be ripple effects elsewhere."
Every place where US and Russian interests clash is immediately dangerous, Kimmage added.
That said, according to the former diplomat, the deconfliction mechanisms in Syria, established in 2015, have worked well for the past seven years.
"The US will not expand its small presence in Syria, and the Russian military will be tied to Ukraine and the situation around it for the foreseeable future. In that sense, the arena to worry about is not the Middle East. It's Europe," Kimmage said.