Saturday, August 20, 2016

Close encounter between US F-22 fighters and Syrian SU-24's over Hasakah

Kurdish civilians load up a vehicle to flee the fighting. AFP. 

US and Syrian jets had a close encounter in the skies above Hasakah after new fighting between the regime and the Kurds. Wall Street Journal. Two US F-22 Raptors were deployed to intercept a pair of Syrian SU-24 Fencer attack jets. The SU-24's were in the area after the United States had beefed up patrols after Syrian jets bombed Kurds on the ground. Control of Hasakah has been split between the Kurds and the regime for a long time and US forces were positioned in the city. Fighting between the Kurds and the regime is extremely rare and airstrikes against the Kurds are unheard of. The United States used their "de-escalation" line with Russia to ensure that Syrian jets did not approach US forces on the ground. 

My Comment:
This is a worrying development. To this point the Syrian regime and the Kurds have been de-facto allies. Fighting between the two groups is almost unheard of, so I am rather shocked that the regime is bombing near Hasakah. I really think the report is leaving some things out about how unprecedented this is. Consider the following:

1. Hasakah is pretty far away from the front lines with ISIS. There was a point when ISIS was threatening the city but they have been pushed back and it has been rather safe for awhile. Whatever is happening in Hasakah is likely unrelated to the fight against ISIS.

2. The Syrian regime is currently fighting a life or death battle for the city of Aleppo. That is probably the most important battle happening right now and is perhaps the most important battle of the war. If the regime wins in Aleppo, the war is essentially won. The secular rebel groups will be knocked out of the war and the extremists like ISIS and whatever al-Nusra is calling themselves these day will be greatly weakened. Sending these two jets to strike targets as far away as Hasakah seems like an insane waste of resources.

3. The Kurds and Syrian regime have had, until now, no reason to fight each other. They were decent allies during the battle for Hasakah and they helped each other save the city. They have also assisted each other in many other battles. To attack them seems like lunacy because they are throwing away an ally, even if they are allies of convenience. 

4, They sent in the bombers anyways even knowing that there was a risk of a US response. I am sure that the Russians told the Syrians that there are Americans in the general vicinity of Hasakah, and I bet the regime has their own sources as well. They risked getting two of their planes shot down (critical and hard to replace planes at that) and forcing a response from the US. That's not something you risk for stupid reasons.

So why did the Syrians do this? It seems unlikely that they would be willing to send in airstrikes for minor skirmishes between the Kurds and their troops. Though I am sure the troops on the ground appreciated it, they should have been able to easily hold out against any attacks by the Kurds. I guess it is possible that they would do so, or even more unbelievably, that they didn't know any Americans were in the area, but I sincerely doubt it. It is also possible that these skirmishes are a lot worse then we have been led to believe, but I don't see the evidence for that. 

Again, what to the Syrians gain from doing this? Well let me answer that question with another one. Why are the Kurds and Syrians fighting now, after years of relative peace? Nobody seems to have a good answer for that. Some people are saying that it's the regime getting angry at the Kurds for fostering relationships with Russia and the United States. The Syrians don't want federalism. That's the Kurds take on it, but they are obviously biased.  

Another possibility is that the United States was whipping up the Kurds to fight the regime. Though I have zero evidence of that whatsoever, I do have to question what US troops were doing in Hasakah. At this point in the war, Hasakah is backwater. There aren't any enemies to fight in the area... unless you make the Syrian regime into your enemy. This could be a message from the regime to the United States informing them that they know what is up and are not going to tolerate it if possible. The problem with that theory is there seems to be little reason for us to do this. I know our strategy in Syria is dumb, but it isn't that dumb right? 

Finally, we have to consider the possibility that it wasn't the Kurds idea to attack the regime. Though the bulk of the forces in Hasakah are Syrian Kurds, there are other minorities as well. There are a handful of Assyrian Christians but critically, there are also a lot of Sunni Arab rebels as well. These Arab rebels may be branching off from their Kurdish masters to start their own conflict with the regime. The more I think about the more likely this possibility seems. The Kurds and the regime have little reason to fight but the Sunni Arabs certainly do, especially with the situation in Aleppo.

I am glad that the incident between our F-22's and the Syrian SU-24's ended peacefully though. The SU-24's are primarily ground attack aircraft and though they are often equipped with air-to-air missiles, I doubt they are much of a threat to our F-22's. Still, a shootout between US and Syrian jets would not be good for anyone involved, including the Russians.

Not only would there be a loss of life, there is a chance that the situation could spiral out of control. The last thing we need is a shooting war with Russia over Syria. Though that still remains a remote possibility, the chances get a little higher every time one of these incidents occur. My hope is that Syria won't send any more strikes and if they do, that we don't shoot down their planes. Still, given the way things are going in Syria, anything is possible. 

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