Tensions between Russia and the United States are coming to a head over the civil war in Syria. Washington has suspended bilateral talks with Russia to end the five-year old war. Moscow has suspended an agreement to destroy 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium that was reached during the year 2000, using especially harsh rhetoric. Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces—with the backing of Russian airpower—are continuing to mount a fierce attack on the partially rebel-held city of Aleppo with Washington seemingly powerless to influence events on the ground….Among the four options that may be under consideration [in the United States] are a no-fly-zone, safe zones, attacking the Syrian air force and arming the Syrian rebels with additional weaponry. But each option carries with it significant risk of escalation or blowback.
While the United States has the capability to defeat Russian and Syrian regime air forces and air defenses, which is necessary to establish a no-fly zone or safe-zone, or to destroy the regime’s airpower, there are several risks from a legal and military standpoint. The legal problem comes from the fact that the United States is not technically at war with the Syria, nor is there a UN resolution authorizing American forces to operate inside that nation… [On the contrary] Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime.
A no-fly zone or safe zone would require U.S. combat aircraft to intercept and possibly shoot down Russian and Syrian warplanes entering into the area designated by Washington and its allies…. [But] It is highly unlikely that any U.S. President would be willing to risk war against a nuclear-armed power with only four months left in office in a conflict with few—if any—vital American interests at stake. The Russians know that and might not be willing to back down in the event of an air-to-air confrontation with American forces because too much national prestige—and even Mr. Putin’s personal prestige—would be on the line. Thus, such an encounter could escalate in unpredictable ways…
A worse option still would be for the U.S. military to attack the Syrian air force and its bases directly since it would an overt act of war against Syria—even more so than a no-fly or safe zone. As Secretary Kerry pointed out, without a U.N. Security Council resolution, the United States does not have legal grounds to go to war. But moreover, the military difficulties with directly attacking Syrian forces are more problematic.
The United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps could easily annihilate Syrian and even Russian air defenses—and airpower—inside Syria. Moscow—even with the fearsome capabilities of its S-400 air and missile defense system—is not able to defeat the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors, which are able to fly inside zones protected by those system and defeat them. In fact, defeating advanced air defenses is one of the Raptor’s primary missions. Nor would Russian Su-30SM or Su-35S Flankers survive long against the Raptor, which was specifically designed to counter advanced next-generation Soviet fighters that ultimately never materialized….
[But] Russia might not limit its retaliation to just American and NATO forces in Syria. Given Moscow’s arsenal of Kaliber-NK cruise missiles and long-range bombers and submarines, the Kremlin has options to strike back across a huge geographic range. It is not outside realm of the possible that Russia would hit back at U.S. bases in Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Turkey using long-range precision-guided cruise missiles. The Russian Black Sea fleet and the Caspian Sea flotilla can easily hit such targets. Then there is Moscow’s formidable bomber fleet which can target the continental United States itself….
It might be prudent to exercise restraint before launching a new war—against a nuclear-armed power—that the American people don’t necessarily want to fight. That’s especially true in a conflict where the lines are blurry and there are no clear-cut good guys—where even so-called “moderate” rebels backed by the U.S. government are beheading children. Under such circumstances, the best policy for the United States might simply be to leave well enough alone—there is simply no need to stick our fingers into yet another hornet’s nest.
Excerpts from Dave Majumdar, Why the United States Should Exercise Restraint Before Launching A New War in Syria, National Interest, Oct. 3, 2016