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'Open Conflict' Between US and Russia in Syria? Kremlin Won't Comment

Russia is not interested in escalation in Syria, but can it be provoked?

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Let's all take a deep breath and start with the basics: Russia is not looking to pick a fight with the United States. But can it be provoked?

Yes, Russia says it will track and target ("paint") all aircraft flying west of the Euphrates. This means the Russians are just a button-click away from firing on US aircraft, but this doesn't necessarily mean they'll actually fire. (To be clear: This is hardly the first time Russia has "painted" US aircraft inside Syria.)

<figcaption>Russia is looking to end the war in Syria—not escalate it</figcaption>
Russia is looking to end the war in Syria—not escalate it

But would Russia actually fire on US aircraft violating Russia's zone of control? 

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov clearly doesn't want to talk about it:

"I would not comment on this," he said when asked if the Kremlin was concerned over the possibility that the Syrian crisis could lead to an open conflict between Moscow and Washington.

"However, the situation related to the (US-led) coalition’s actions causes serious concern," the Kremlin spokesman added.

Before accusing Russia of cowardice, please consider the following: Russia inhabits a pragmatic, reality-based world. Shooting down US warplanes is not pragmatic.

It's also completely antithetical to Russia's long-term objectives in Syria

Please keep in mind:

  • Russia's primary objective in Syria is to expel ISIS and other militants, and restore Syria's territorial integrity. As part of its efforts in Syria, Moscow has invested a tremendous amount of political capital in fragile ceasefire agreements and peace talks. 
  • Shooting down US aircraft over Syria would do nothing to further Russia's aims in Syria. If anything, such actions would sabotage all progress made towards winding down the conflict.
  • The United States knows this and has been constantly provoking Russia since Day One. 
  • The best way to push the US out of Syria is to defeat its proxies. (Assad has made this point many times.)
  • Once ISIS is expelled from Syria, the US will have to either leave the country or admit that it's there to topple Assad. That's a whole new ballgame—and one that Washington probably doesn't want to play. 

We've entered the endgame in Syria. Is shooting down US planes the best move at this late stage in the game?

The Kremlin probably doesn't think so. 

But Russia painting US aircraft isn't the big issue here—it's that without the deconfliction channel, the chances of escalation (intended or accidental) in Syria have just increased tenfold. 

Even more concerning is that despite the risks, Russia now believes suspending the deconfliction channel is in its best interests. That's revealing. 

But is there a "red line" for Russia in Syria? Or to phrase the question differently: At what point does shooting down a US plane become pragmatic?

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