Here Is How Russia and America Could Go to War in Syria

Here Is How Russia and America Could Go to War in Syria

How and why an American attack in Syria could escalate into a wider war.

That could mean that the United States uses long-range precision guided strike assets, such as the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles or the U.S. Air Force’s B-52-launched AGM-86C Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM), to hit such targets deep inside Syria—reducing risk to aircrews from surface-to-air missiles. Moreover, because cruise missiles fly at extremely low altitude using the terrain to mask their approach from ground radars, Russia’s extremely capable air defenses, such as the S-400 and S-300V4 systems deployed in Syria, would not be able to engage incoming cruise missile unless they were under direct attack. Essentially, while Russian air defense systems provide area air defense coverage against medium or high altitude threats, they are effectively point defense weapons when defending against cruise missiles.

The United States could also use stealth aircraft, such as the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, to hit targets in Syria. While the Russians may well have the capability to detect those aircraft, Moscow does not likely have the means to develop a “weapons quality” track to engage those jets with either the S-300V4 or the S-400. The advantage of using a manned stealth aircraft is that those aircraft carry high-resolution sensors and carry a variety of weapons—which meas a targeteer can match an appropriate weapon to an appropriate target using real time data coming from the jet’s sensors.

“The particular strike package depends on a variety of factors that involve the desired effects to be accomplished,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief who has also designed several air campaigns, told the National Interest. “Threats enroute and in the target area; timing, i.e. how rapidly does the President want to respond as that will determine appropriate forces available to respond inside that timeline; target proximity to non-combatants and considerations of collateral damage; specific weapons effects desired that will drive weapon options, are among many of the factors that go into force package and attack design.”

Russia’s Response

If Russia’s forces are hit by an American or allied air strike, Moscow will respond with force. The Kremlin is not bluffing, analysts say. “If Russian forces are attacked then we will have a war,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, told the National Interest.

Russian forces have the ability to strike back at U.S. and allied bases—not only in the Middle East but also in Europe. As Gerasimov had noted, the Russians would not necessarily confine their response to an attack on their forces to just Syria, they would strike at the launch platforms and their bases of origin. Long range precision guided weapons such as the ship and submarine based Kalibr cruise missile and the X-101 air-launched cruise missile—which can be carried onboard the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers—afford Moscow the ability to strike U.S. bases around the region. That could be cause for concern for American allies, which might host U.S. strike aircraft that might engage Russian targets.

The problem with starting a war with another nuclear-armed great power is that such conflicts inevitably escalate—and escalate out of control. Indeed, a conflict between Russia and the United States is likely to do so. “It will most likely escalate out of control,” Kashin said.

Israel Adds to the Confusion

Another wild card is Israel and other regional powers involved in Syria. The Russians recently accused Israel of launching an airstrike on the Syrian regime’s T-4 airbase. “On April 9, in the period between 3.25 a.m. and 3.53 a.m. Moscow Time two F-15 aircraft of Israel’s Air Force delivered a strike with eight guided missiles on the T-4 airfield without entering Syria’s airspace from Lebanon’s territory," the Russian defense ministry said according to TASS.

The Russians claim that Syrian air defenses destroyed five of the Israeli missiles while the remaining three weapons hit their target—which is dubious given the state of Syria’s air defenses. TASS reported that there were no Russian advisers among the casualties, however it is reported that at least fourteen pro-regime forces, including some number of Iranian personnel, were killed. Thus, the potential for an unintentional clash—between multiple powers—is high.

Indeed, the Pentagon was forced earlier to deny that American forces were involved. “At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting airstrikes in Syria. However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable," the Defense Department said.

A Great Power Confrontation

Depending on Trump’s decisions over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, the world may be faced with the most dangerous great-power confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The outcome could either be an unmitigated disaster, where there is an open war between Russia and the United States, or it might turn out to be a learning experience that averts future crises.

The Washington national security community has largely forgotten the Cold War concepts of nuclear deterrence and managing confrontations with a nuclear-armed rival. Over the past twenty-five years or so, Washington has become accustomed to a world where there are no great-power challengers and the only real threat comes from terrorism.

“People have sophomoric views on great power confrontation here,” Kofman said. “In fact a lot of people don’t even understand nuclear strategy and deterrence all that well anymore and the escalatory dynamics. And you can tell by the conversations—we have been in the terrorism/counterinsurgency game for way too long and people don’t understand what they are playing with at senior levels. I hear it all the time. That’s all a recipe for a 1950-1960s  type interaction with another great power.”

Indeed, it might take a new version of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for the American foreign policy establishment to grasp how dangerous a confrontation with a rival nuclear-armed great power can be. “I hate to say it, but it might be a good thing,” Kofman said. “I actually think it might be a good thing to have that crisis for everyone to grow up.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Wikimedia Commons