Future of Syrian Skies

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When the US-led coalition announced on 19 June that a Syrian Su-22 jet had been shot down by a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet the day before, Russia suspended a pact preventing clashes in the Syrian flight zone. As the Russian Defense Ministry argues, the downing of the Syrian aircraft is “a cynical violation of Syria’s sovereignty”, with “the US repeated combat operations under the guise of “combating terrorism” against the legitimate armed forces of a UN member-country being an actual military aggression”. The Ministry also publicly stated that “since June 19 all kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] of the international coalition, detected to the west of the Euphrates river, will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets”.

In his interview for Rethinking Russia, Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert on the Middle East and Russian foreign policy, comments on the situation and its possible implications.

– Russia’s actions seem to me quite logical. As Moscow seeks to avoid the escalation, it has to take the most serious steps which will not heighten tensions. Meanwhile, Russia has earlier suspended its memorandum on flight safety in Syria[1]. From this perspective, the statement that Russia will consider aircraft operating west of the Euphrates its targets signals Moscow’s concern and, at the same time, its unwillingness to exacerbate the situation and generate new tensions.

At the same time, I believe that Russia’s statements are unlikely to affect the US policy in the region. Russia, in its turn, will not go as far as to shoot down an aircraft of the coalition. I would like to reiterate my idea that Moscow and Washington seek to avert direct confrontation and, I think, will try to overcome the differences as soon as they can, as it was the case in April[2].

It is noteworthy that the Russian Defense Ministry voiced a regret at the coalition’s failure to prevent the incident in the Syrian flight zone. The coalition troops could have resorted to the communication channels between the American Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and the Russian Khmeimim Air Base. Russia has learnt a lot in the aftermath of the tragic downing of the Russian warplane by Turkey, which accounts for the importance that it attaches to the communication channels. The Russian aviation carries out combat missions in Syria.

[1] The Defense Ministry declared its intention to take this step in April following the US missile attack on Shayrat airbase in Syria.

[2] By May the parties had overcome the divisions related to the US strike and restored the memorandum.

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