Was Russia’s Brazen Air Strike On US-Backed Anti-ISIS Fighters A Ploy?

Russian jets are back in Syria, and they faced down F/A-18s during a suspect raid on an obscure outpost.

Russian Jets
Vadim Savitsky/mil.ru/wikicommons

In what was the most provocative move made by Russia since becoming militarily involved in the conflict in Syria, Russian jets bombed US-backed anti-ISIS fighters last week at a remote garrison located along the Jordanian border. The area is one that Russia has never really been active in even during Moscow’s high-tempo bombing campaign that supposedly ended last March.

A peculiar and brazen attack

According to CNN, the target was a remote staging base near At Tanf, less than a dozen miles from the Jordanian border. About 200 US-backed fighters were at the base at the time of the surprise attack, with an unknown amount killed and wounded during the aerial bombardment.

As the initial air strikes began, personnel at the base sent an emergency message to the Combined Operations Center in Qatar that manages the US-led air campaign. The US then used the emergency communications channel setup between the US and Russia last winter to tell Russia to stop the onslaught.

There was no response.

At the same time, American F/A-18 Hornets were redirected to the area to provide air cover. The Hornets came close enough to the Russian jets to visually identify them as they left the area. The Hornet pilots tried to contact the Russian aircraft on a preassigned frequency that was put in place early last winter because of “deconfliction concerns” between the two nations. There was no answer.

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The Hornets stayed overhead the smoldering outpost for a period of time but had to depart briefly to refuel from a tanker. Once they departed the area, the Russian jets vectored back in on the base and struck it once again. The Los Angeles Times states that the Russian aircraft involved in the attack were Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers while other reports list them as Su-24 Fencer attack jets. Both could be true, with different sets of aircraft attacking the target during the two consecutive waves. The Su-34’s PESA radar and long endurance would have been beneficial to keep tabs on the Hornets so that they would know when the area was vulnerable again for a second strike.  

These details raise serious questions. First, is Russia diving back into the Syrian conflict with fixed-wing attack and fighter aircraft? Second, following this brazen airstrike—one where the emergency measures agreed upon by the US and Russia to keep misunderstandings from happening were seemingly jettisoned—what does it mean for the next time US and Russian air power come face-to-face over Syrian territory?

Russian fixed-wing airpower returns to Syria

This airstrike comes as the US is hitting ISIS from Syria’s Mediterranean shore for the first time via the carrier strike group that is positioned there. It had been thought that Russia had pulled its fighters out of its base near the central Syrian coast, but now it seems some of these aircraft have returned.

Additional evidence of this fact surfaced late last week when Russian Defense Minister Shoygu visited the base with an entourage from the Kremlin. In photos from the visit, Su-34, Su-24 and armed Su-35s are all clearly visible. As such, it appears Russia has redeployed its tactical fixed-wing aircraft to the base en-masse, including its most advanced operational air-to-air fighters. Shoygu was also photographed meeting with Bashar al Assad during his trip.

Here are some photos taken while Shoygu visited Syria:

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It is unclear how all this will affect America’s airstrikes from the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, the redeployment of Russian fighter aircraft to their base located on Syria’s central coast could be a response to the presence of the US Carrier Strike Group nearby. We expected some sort of military response from Russia to the presence of the American flotilla; this would certainly fit the bill. Still, it is likely that US Navy Hornets and Growlers are already flying routes that circumnavigate around Russia’s air base and the S-400 air defense system that remains there.

While Russia’s fixed-wing air component in Syria was thought to have largely vacated region months ago, Russian attack helicopters have been highly active in central Syria, supporting Assad’s forces as they push east toward ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of al Raqqa. Meanwhile, American-backed forces, some with embedded US Special Forces, are surrounding al Raqqa from the north. Regardless of if or when ISIS’s seat of power will fall, there is clearly a larger conflict brewing that would follow, one for control of Syria either in partial form, or in Assad’s case, “every inch of the country.”

Game Of Thrones, Syria style

So far the Obama Administration has left the Assad regime alone, focusing on ISIS instead, even though regime change is the official White House policy. Actually making that happen became much tougher once Russia dived into the conflict militarily late last summer. Although Assad had been helped by Iran during the half decade-long civil war, once Russia was on the ground, Assad’s hold on power became much more assured.  

Not only was this accomplished by Russian forces basically turning the Syrian civil war around militarily for Assad via the use of ruthless air power and “advisors” on the ground, but it also meant that if the US were to turn their weapons against Assad those same weapons would likely be pointing at Russians as well. Such a move could spark a conflict between the US and Russia that would make Syria look like a sideshow act. In other words, as much as Russia’s excursion in Syria was to keep the beat-down Assad regime from being sacked by rebel groups, it was also a blocking maneuver that made it much harder for the US to take out the Assad regime militarily if it wanted to in the future.

In exchange, Russia gained greater influence in a region in which it has struggled for decades. It also kept its key strategic Mediterranean port in Tartus, gained a master air base in the region, and was able to show off all of its military hardware to global arms buyers. Most of all it was able to put on a show meant to tell the world that Russia is powerful militarily once again and can operate far from its own borders just like the US, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Now a reenergized Assad regime wants to gain control of every inch of Syria, which could mean the potential annihilation of US backed fighters of various ethnic and religious backgrounds that emanate from the country’s eastern frontier. This force is widely known as the Syrian Democratic Forces and is now concentrated entirely on fighting ISIS.

Assad and Russia likely worry that this collective force, trained and equipped by the US, could become a huge threat as time goes by, especially after the danger from ISIS has been decentralized. During Russia’s air campaign in Syria, the vast majority of the targets prosecuted were against those fighting Assad in the west of the country, not against ISIS, which is concentrated in the county’s central and eastern parts. Since morphing from a defensive to an offensive campaign, this has changed. Now it seems like both US-backed fighters and Assad’s Russian-backed forces are racing toward al Raqqa. Think of it as a modern war on terror version of the race to Berlin.  

Russia’s never-ending quest to get America’s tactical map of Syria

Secretary of Defense Carter did not mince words in response to the Russian strike:

"Here's a case where they actually attacked forces that were fighting ISIL. And if that was their intention, that's the opposite of what they said they were going to do. If not, then it says something about the quality of the information upon which they make airstrikes."

This statement is meant to question Russia’s true objectives in Syria, but it also may indicate the US in falling into the Kremlin’s trap when it comes to their satisfying their incessant demand for acquiring the Pentagon’s rich intelligence and tactical map of Syria.

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The US-led coalition's Combined Air Operations Center located Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.r 

In response, the Kremlin claims it is hard to discern who is who on the battlefield. Such a response is damning on multiple levels. First of all, this was a remote outpost far from where Assad’s forces are fighting, and the strike was obviously well planned. Even for Russia, whose air campaign in Syria was dominated by dumb bombs and questionable targeting, striking an outpost on the Jordanian border—literally in the middle of nowhere—not once, but twice, and even after the US had fighters over the target, is too conveniently incompetent.

Then there is the strange silence in the face of US calls to stand down, despite a hotline setup by both parties for just this type of situation—and by the F/A-18 crews themselves. Could Russia’s real goal for this attack have been a strategic one?

Russia has long pushed for "intelligence sharing" with the US. Primarily, this includes the assembly of a common map showing precisely where everyone is on the Syrian battlefield. The US-led coalition has been wary of such an endeavor because it would give Russia all the positions of anti-Assad forces, including the locations of US Special Operations personnel. Considering Russia spent the majority of its time pummeling anti-Assad fighters, not ISIS, during its air campaign, giving them America’s situational map of the conflict sounds like a game of “Russian Roulette” if you will. Also, the idea is that if Russia gets this information so would Assad. As such, these forces could be wiped out by Russian air power on a whim, or even by Assad’s forces as they continue to gain tactical momentum.

Additionally, Russia, which does not possess the armada of unmanned aircraft and intelligence gathering resources that the US does, would benefit from America’s intelligence products and resources at no cost to them at all. This fits in perfectly with Moscow’s “maximum effects with minimal footprint” model for their operations in Syria, basically fighting the war on the cheap while claiming huge strategic results.

So what could push the US to finally agree to supply Russia with this information? How about an “accidental” airstrike on a remote outpost, one full of US-backed fighters but that has no US personnel deployed to it?

Russia’s response after the attack, basically saying “the battlefield is just confusing” is also incredibly peculiar, one strangely devoid of the Kremlin’s usual spin, bravado and over-bloated statements of efficiency and accuracy on the battlefield. The Kremlin also stating that the US had not provided Russia with the location of all the rebel groups they support, "making it impossible to take measures to adjust the Russian air force action."

If only they had that map right?

On Saturday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov  also stated the following:

"The Russian defense ministry for the past few months has been proposing to its American colleagues to draw a unified map, which would contain information about the location of the forces which were active in Syria. However, no material progress has been made on this issue.”

Then on Sunday , after the US and Russia had an emergency video conference about the strike and apparently the information sharing came up immediately, with Moscow going as far as proclaiming that the US had agreed to cooperate with them to avoid future incidents.

It is also interesting that General Shoygu was in Damascus right before this attack took place, meeting with Assad no less. So was all this an elaborate ruse to try to finally get the US to give up the positions of all the rebel fighters it backs along with the coordinates of its own special operators?  Considering the long-term coordinated massaging and the odd “all too convenient” circumstances surrounding the attack, it seems very possible. Now we will have to see if the Pentagon is naive enough to bite.

Regardless of if this was Russia’s play when it comes to last week’s strange set of air strikes or not, one thing is for certain, heavy Russian air power is back in Syria. The move is somewhat predictable as Putin has shown in Ukraine that flexing forces in and out of a region while making conflicting public statements is a favorite tactic in his playbook. Still, that doesn’t make it any less impactful on the balance of power in the region and on the ever more complicated Syrian conflict.

Contact the author at tyler@thedrive.com