Analysis & Opinions - The Cipher Brief

U.S. Downing of Syrian Warplane: A “Canary in the Coal Mine”

| June 22, 2017

Q&A with Admiral Sandy Winnefeld

After a U.S. Navy F/A-18E shot down a Syrian SU-22 bomber on Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly condemned the action, announced that a military hotline between U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces had been shut down, and declared that any U.S. jets flying west of the Euphrates river would be considered “air targets.” As U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russia-backed Syrian government forces come ever closer to overlap in Raqqa Province and Deir al Zour, The Cipher Brief’s Leone Lakhani spoke with Admiral James ‘Sandy’ Winnefeld – former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – about what this means for U.S.-Russian relations in the Syrian conflict.

The Cipher Brief: First of all, let’s talk about the U.S. downing of a Syrian warplane. There have been other incidents with the Syrian military before, but this is the first time we’ve seen a plane being shot down. What are your thoughts on that?

Sandy Winnefeld: I think we’ve made it very clear to all parties in this conflict that we are there to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the moderate opposition – in defeating ISIL, and no one should get in the way of us doing that. I’m sure there were warnings given to the Syrian plane, those are our standard rules of engagement, but the plane did not heed those warnings so our guys shot down the aircraft that was bombing our allied SDF forces.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise to anybody, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and of course it finally did.

TCB: Thinking back to the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in April, do you think this is showing a broader change in strategy, or do you think this is just an extension of what the U.S. has been doing in Syria?

Winnefeld: That’s an interesting question. It’s not related directly to the Tomahawk strikes. Personally, I think President Barack Obama would have done the Tomahawk strikes as well. When he initially drew the “red line” against chemical weapons use in Syria, we worked our way up to strikes, and then he decided to ask Congress, and long story short, we held back in exchange for Russia and Syria removing the lion’s share of chemical weapons – although clearly not all – from the country.

Now, zooming forward, I think that if President Obama were still in office and [Syrian] President [Bashar al] Assad again used chemical weapons against his own population, I’m certain that President Obama would have done the same thing. So, it’s is a completely different animal from the downing of this jet.

This wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t an effort to go find a Syrian airplane and shoot it down. This was part of the greater willingness on the part of the Trump Administration to take a greater risk in terms of the possibility of intersecting directly with Syrian or Russian forces in this conflict.

That is something which President Obama was very anxious to avoid. He wanted us to support the rebels in fighting ISIL, but he wanted to do it in a way that would not risk a direct confrontation with the Syrians. Clearly that is less of a concern under this administration.

TCB: Do you think Washington needs to be concerned about the Russian threats to shoot down U.S. planes in Syria as a response to this incident, or do you think this is just posturing on the part of the Kremlin?

Winnefeld: They have to make comments like that. If you look back at the last four, five years or so, the Turks shot down a Russian airplane, and there was a real problem for a while between the Russians and the Turks, and now they’re friends again.

There have been a series of such events that capture the media’s attention, because it’s a big deal when you shoot down an airplane. It rises above the noise.  But, in terms of the Russian threats, our guys are very careful over there, no matter what. They also fly some pretty good airplanes that would be hard for Russia to threaten. Due diligence is always required, but our guys are very well controlled, and they have a very good situational awareness of where the threats really are.

TCB: What do you make of the Iranian cruise missile strikes against ISIS targets in Syria this week? After the attack on June 7 against the Iranian parliament by ISIS militants, they seem to have a lot of domestic pressure for such attacks. Do you think that’s all this is, or do you think that Iran is attempting to challenge U.S. policy in Syria going forward?

Winnefeld: Iran conducted these missile strikes in order to satisfy a domestic audience and to send a message to ISIL. The question is how often are they going to do this now? Do they have the resources and missiles available to consistently launch these missile strikes? That’s not a game changer until they make a mistake and hit forces that we’re working with, and of course the worse thing they could do would be to hit our forces, particularly if it looks like it was intentional. But even if it was unintentional, that’s going to be a problem.

When you look at the larger strategic question, we are in there fighting against ISIL. The Syrians and the Russians are fighting against anybody who’s not the Syrian government. Sooner or later, once ISIL is vanquished or squeezed out or what have you, there’s going to be a collision. It remains to be seen exactly who the collision will be between. It will probably be between the Syrian army and forces that we’re sympathetic to – the SDF, the Kurds, etc. – and when that happens, this administration is going to have to decide how hard they want to push.

This really is a total war for the Syrian government. It is not necessarily total war for us. And that’s an asymmetry. So the real strategic decisions remain to be seen: Once ISIL is gone and that factor is removed from the battle field, what comes next?

For better or worse Obama wanted to avoid a confrontation between the United States and Syria, and he certainly wanted to avoid a confrontation between the United States and Russia for as long as possible.

So how does this end? Is it going to be some sort of stasis where different elements control different chunks of Syrian territory, and there is de-confliction between those zones of control? Or is this going to be a fight to the death? I think the Syrian government will look upon it as a fight to the death. It’s their territory, it’s their country. They’re going to want to regain sovereignty over it. And I think they’re going to keep pressing and Russia will support them. Iran will certainly support them. 

TCB: Will Russia really keep supporting them? Don’t they want to extricate themselves from Syria at some point? Isn’t that the point of ongoing Syrian ceasefire talks in Astana?

Winnefeld: First of all, I wouldn’t believe anything that the Russians say at any time. I think they (Russia) will continue to support Syria. They’ll do whatever’s convenient for them geopolitically, internally. Certainly if the Syrian government is threatened, they will come in heavily. If the Syrian government seems to be winning, they’ll continue to support them but less directly.

TCB: In terms of the U.S. then, you don’t really see a general change in tactics? Is this just a continuation of current Trump Administration policy?

Winnefeld: I think the change between Obama and Trump in Syria policy has sort of crept up on us. it’s not a sudden change, but it demonstrates a greater willingness on the part of this administration to support those who are fighting ISIL, even if it risks direct confrontation with Syria or their backers – Iran and Russia. That’s the big difference between the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration.

This will really manifest itself when the big collision occurs. The downing of the Syrian warplane is just a tiny incident, a sort of canary in the coal mine, for what is ultimately going to happen when ISIL is squeezed out and the real battle for Syria begins.   

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:U.S. Downing of Syrian Warplane: A “Canary in the Coal Mine”.” The Cipher Brief, June 22, 2017.