Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.
As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.
On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.
“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.
By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.
The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.
Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.
The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.