It turns out that the greatest threat to U.S. interests involving Moscow in the Trump era has little to do with Trump’s campaign-trail promise to pursue détente with the Kremlin. Russia’s latest strike on American-backed assets on Syria, with U.S. troops positioned not far from the fire, is an indication that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s right: This assault on U.S. interests in Syria by Moscow is only the most recent. On Wednesday, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend revealed that Russian and Syrian aircraft targeted the Syrian town of Al Bab where U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition forces were stationed. The bombing inflicted causalities on the American-supported rebel soldiers, and U.S. special commandos were located just 2.5 miles away from Russia’s target at the time. Townsend suggested that the attack was an accident and that the bombing ceased once American personnel contacted their Russian counterparts on a de-confliction hotline.
The idea that this strike was entirely accidental would be met with less incredulity if something similar had not previously occurred on more than one occasion. Moscow inaugurated its military intervention in the Syrian conflict not by executing strikes on Islamist targets—the Kremlin’s professed intention—but by hitting U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels and a CIA weapon depot. In executing this strike, Moscow exposed to the world a previously unacknowledged covert program targeting Assad regime forces.
Eight months later, Russian aircraft over Syria bombed another rebel outpost far from the front against ISIS. Except the Russians’ target wasn’t a rebel outpost at all. The target was a secret base of operations at which U.S. and British Special Forces trained rebel soldiers. The outpost had, in fact, been occupied by 20 British Special Forces soldiers just 24 hours before it was destroyed by Russian ordnance. Four days after that strike, Russian warplanes leveled a camp near the Jordanian border that housed the families of CIA-backed Syrian fighters.
Intelligence and Defense sources claimed that the strikes on American targets were designed to speed up the deliberative process inside the Obama administration about whether to work more closely with the Russian military in Syria. According to the Wall Street Journal, these reckless strikes soured the Pentagon and CIA on the prospect of closer cooperation. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-fated efforts to secure a diplomatic agreement on Syria involving Russia and Iran collapsed soon after that. A theatrical display in which Russia, Turkey, and Iran held “peace talks” excluding the United States was only so much drama. Many expected that it would not be long before Russia resumed its strong-arm tactics designed to compel Washington to abandon its efforts to destabilize the Assad regime. That day may be here.
The danger posed by President Trump’s conspicuous deference to Putin was not that he would abrogate treaties, eschew traditional American grand strategy, and recalibrate America’s alliance structure to benefit Moscow. The danger was in the prospect that Putin would welcome a Trump administration as a period in which he would enjoy new freedom of action in what Moscow defines as its sphere of uncontested influence. In testing the parameters of his assumed new freedoms, Putin could miscalculate and commit an offense against American interests that would compel Trump to respond forcefully even if he was disinclined to respond at all. This cascading series of escalating reprisals is difficult to break, and it’s how major wars can occur.
Perhaps Russia’s latest strike on U.S. assets with American troops just a few kilometers from ground zero really was an accident. Maybe it was part of a pattern of efforts to communicate to the White House Moscow’s sense of urgency, not to mention its desire to see the Trump administration make good on the promise of rapprochement with Russia. We may know soon enough.