During the Cold War in Europe US-led NATO forces and the Soviet armed forces were deployed on opposite sides of a region which came to be known as the Fulda Gap from where it was expected that any invasion would occur. Fortunately, no such show of force took place and peace prevailed in Western Europe. In the current context, the US military and its proxy forces are carrying out a parallel military campaign in Syria along the Euphrates while Russian backed Syrian forces and other proxy militias are waging another war on Syria’s diminishing battlefields.
While tensions between the US and Russia are on the rise but in Syria, both sides have carried out their opposing military campaigns without firing shots at each other directly till now. Both have only attacked each other’s proxy forces so far. Russia has been carrying out air strikes against terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) and Syrian rebel forces like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria’s major cities like Aleppo and Palmyra and supply routes with some success while its Spetsnaz special operation forces embedded with the Syrian Arab Army and Iranian and Lebanese backed Hezbollah forces and other Shia militias wage a ground campaign to regain lost territory. While the US has been supporting the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the north to capture ISIS’s former capital of Raqqa.
There have been moments of escalation when US President Donald Trump ordered Tomahawk cruise missiles strikes on a Syrian air base after an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime last April which drew dangerous warnings from Moscow and Tehran. Then last June the US military shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 fighter jet that was about to attack SDF forces in the ground. It was the first shooting down of a hostile aircraft by US forces since the 1999 Balkans crisis, US forces also downed two Iranian drones that were threatening US backed forces. Though US and Russian military officials have been carefully and closely coordinating and communicating about each other’s military activities in the region differences obviously exist and the danger of the situation escalating out of control is a constant one. There are talks about demarcating Syria’s battle lines for both coalitions as well a hotline that keeps Russia and US aircraft away as they carry out their respective sorties. But as both sides increase their activities to recapture whatever is left of ISIS’s deteriorating caliphate the danger of accidental contact escalates.
For example, when the Syrian Su-22 jet was shot down unnamed US officials said that there were other aircraft in the same airspace as well – two Russian warplanes that kept watch from above and a USAF F-22 stealth fighter which looked down from an even higher altitude. After this incident, Russia warned that any aircraft flying west of the Euphrates would be a legitimate target even though the USAF kept flying in the area while talking to the Russians. A demarcation boundary is supposed to be extended between the two sides as the war creeps towards ISIS’s last significant Syrian stronghold, the Deir al-Zor region. The boundary is an irregular arc from a point in southwest Tabqa and East of a point on the Euphrates and then along the Euphrates towards Deir al Zor. Divided by the Euphrates Deir al Zor and its oil resources are essential for the Syrian people.
It is important to note that the US military does not communicate with President Bashar al Assad’s government in Damascus but with the Russian military. As calls for Assad’s dismissal grew in the West Russia delivered advanced S-300 SAM systems to Iran and deployed even more improved S-400 SAM systems in Syria. Obviously, neither ISIS nor rebel forces have air power so these air defense systems are meant for American aircraft flying in the area. The Russians do not want a regime change in Syria at any cost. Strategic reasons like the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria and also losing Russia’s sole Middle Eastern ally since the Cold War take precedence. Russia has shown its resilience by supporting Assad through continuing alleged regime atrocities. Even though differences with Iran exist regarding the future of Syria as Iran wants a strong Shia state along sectarian lines and if Syria falls it would give sanctuary to Salafist groups like ISIS which would boost Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region thus weakening Iran Russia is ready to overlook all this if it means undermining US influence and Western populism in the region.