With each swath of land in Syria that falls out of ISIS control, a new battle appears to be emerging, one that potentially has the United States increasingly unable to sidestep the ongoing civil war there.
Syrian government-backed forces, supported by Iran and Russia, are moving east in their bid to re-establish control over the full country. In doing so, they’re running up against where the US-led coalition and its local allies on the ground have long operated a largely isolated war against ISIS. Each side is increasingly butting up against each other, most recently on Tuesday when the US military said a 15E Strike Eagleshot down an armed Syrian drone outside the city of al-Tanf for displaying "hostile intent." The drone "advanced on coalition forces" training local forces there, according to a department statement.
It was the second time the US shot down Syrian aircraft this week. On Sunday, a US F-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian regime SU-22 fighter jet after it attacked US-backed forces on the ground.
Both critics and Pentagon officials alike worry that the Trump administration could find itself forced to take a stance in the six-year-long civil war: either firmly putting its thumb on the scale for the opposition or being forced to lay out a strategy that finally states it will not go after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In response to Sunday’s shootdown, Moscow said in response it would stop using the deconfliction line, a system in place the US and Russia have used for eight months to tell each other when and where its planes are flying. Russia went so far as to say it would consider US planes flying west of the Euphrates River targets — but stopped short of saying it would shoot them down.
"All kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The deconfliction line has been used as a means for the Russians to express their displeasure with US actions before. In April, after the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield in response to the regime's use of chemical weapons on its own people, Russia threatened to stop using the deconfliction line. It is not clear, however, that it ever did.
US military officials seemed confident that the move would not be enduring, calling it a political measure, not a military one. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said while appearing on a panel before the National Press Club Monday that the Russians weren’t utilizing the line at present, but hoped the line would would be operating again in a “coming hours.”
During an off-camera briefing Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the line remains open because the US wanted to avoid collision.
As the US grapples with working alongside Russia, the time when the clashes with the Syrian government and its allies could be seen as isolated incidents is fading as the battle space becomes increasingly crowded. This weekend also marked the first time Iran launched surface-to-surface missiles within Syria at suspected ISIS targets. For Iran, ungoverned spaces in parts of Syria could be part of a critical corridor between its allies that runs from Lebanon to Iraq.
The pro-regime alliance appears to be increasingly — and purposefully — escalating its confrontation with the US-led coalition. The US shoot-down was the fourth time the US-led coalition has found itself in conflict with pro-regime forces in the last month. The US military also has shot down an Iranian drone and has intentionally bombed Syrian forces on the ground near the city of al-Tanf.
Nearly all of those confrontations have happened in cities currently or recently under ISIS control.
The F-18 pilot issued a warning to his Syrian counterpart and when he was ignored, fired two missiles from six miles away, missing the Syrian SU-22 the first time, defense officials said. Sunday’s shoot-down near the Syrian city of Raqqa was the first time the US had shot down a nation’s warplane in air-to-air combat in 25 years, Pentagon officials said.
The Syrian pilot reportedly ejected before the crash. The Syrian Army has also reportedly said its pilot was targeting ISIS, not the US-backed troops known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The US insists it is desperate to not escalate its war in Syria beyond its mission there — the defeat of ISIS in Syria. The military, for its part, is saying that it is willing to do whatever the civilian chain of command asks of it — if it ever does lay out a strategy.
“Of course it is a concern,” one US defense official told BuzzFeed News about the odds that the US find itself unintentionally embroiled in Syria’s civil war. “But that is a policy question.”
“The only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria ... have been in self-defense,” Dunford said. The US military has repositioned its aircraft over Syria as a precautionary measure that, it says, will allow it to keep conducting airstrikes while keeping its crews safe.
“We’re focused on defeating ISIS. We’re not looking to expand this in any way,” a State Department official told BuzzFeed News.
Despite worries about taking ownership of Syria’s civil war, officials at the State Department acknowledge that the long-term prospects in Syria are bleak as long as Assad remains in power. The near-term goal of the department is to encourage small ceasefire agreements in the country to pave the way for a more comprehensive political settlement.
On Saturday, the State Department welcomed a 48-hour ceasefire in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, which came on the same day the United Nations announced its intention to begin a new round of peace talks between Syria’s various factions in Geneva on July 10. The Trump administration also encouraged Syrian rebels to put their weapons down, a resumption of the role the Obama administration played.
"The opposition should similarly halt attacks to allow the ceasefire to endure — and hopefully be extended — and humanitarian aid to reach those in need,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
But some US officials acknowledge that the rising tensions reflect, in part, a lack of clarity about the US’s long-term aims within Syria after the presumed defeat of ISIS. Critics note that every time the US asserts it does not want to do anything beyond defeat ISIS it has emboldened the Assad regime; even though the Syrians lost a fighter jet, they gained a public statement from the biggest threat to its existence that its regime is not in the coalition’s crosshairs.
“We keep saying we are not going to fight the Assad regime. The tactics are driving a strategy to not fight the Assad regime,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington Institute for the Study of War.
The lack of understanding about the US interests in the region after ISIS, and how it hopes to keep such a group from returning, even confounds US audiences. The most common question that audience members asked Dunford during his appearance before the press club was an explanation about the US strategy to combat extremism throughout the world, including Raqqa, ISIS’s self-declared capital.
Dunford said he was confident that members of the SDF could reclaim the former ISIS capital. What would happen if Assad’s government had the same idea went unaddressed.