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Fallout from U.S. strike on a Syrian jet further complicates messy battlefield

June 19, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
An American aircraft shot down a Syrian air force fighter jet Sunday, prompting Russia to say it now considers all U.S. aircraft in the region a threat, and suspending its military hotline for coordination of air missions. John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff gets analysis from Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council and former Defense Department official Andrew Exum.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The downing of a Syrian air force fighter jet by an American strike aircraft is just the latest flash point that perhaps signals a deepening American involvement in Syria’s many-sided civil war.

John Yang begins our coverage.

JOHN YANG: America’s top military commander, Marine General Joseph Dunford, made no apology today for Sunday’s downing of a Syrian warplane.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: We made every effort to warn those individuals not to come any closer, and then the commander made a judgment that there was a threat to the forces that we were supporting and took action. The only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria, and there have been two specific incidents, have been in self-defense.

JOHN YANG: Earlier this month, the U.S. struck pro-Assad forces approaching an important U.S.-British special forces base in At Tanf in Southeastern Syria.

In response to Sunday’s shoot-down, Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it now considers all U.S. aircraft in the region a threat. In a statement, the Defense Ministry said: “All flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected west of the Euphrates will be followed by Russian air defense systems as targets.”

Russia also said it suspended a military hot line with the U.S. designed to coordinate air missions in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for dialogue.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): We call on everybody to avoid unilateral actions, to respect, I stress once again, Syria’s sovereignty.

JOHN YANG: The Pentagon said it’s repositioning jets over Syria to ensure the safety of American air crews. All this further complicates the already messy picture in Syria.

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have ramped up airstrikes to back the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a rebel coalition battling ISIS around its stronghold in Raqqa. Syrian President Assad, backed by Russia, has used jets to support pro-regime groups in the same area. Said to be battling ISIS, those fighters have also clashed with the SDF.

Further complicating matters, Iran’s supports for Assad. But, yesterday, Iran’s military launched its own missile strike on ISIS positions, in retaliation for the group’s attack in Tehran two weeks ago.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on yesterday’s shoot-down, and the wider picture of a very complex battlefield, I’m joined now by Andrew Exum. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from 2015 to 2016, and is now a contributing editor at “The Atlantic.” And Faysal Itani, he’s a senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. It’s a Washington think tank.

And, gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

This is a complicated battlefield we’re talking about.

Faysal Itani, I’m going to start with you.

Given that, was this inevitable that this was going to happen, or should the U.S. been able to avoid it?

FAYSAL ITANI, Atlantic Council: Well, I think it’s very difficult to get the Syrian regime to behave in accordance with any external powers, understand and come to an agreement over.

This was clearly a case of the regime behaving in a manner that probably upset the Russians, may or may not have upset the Iranians. I’m not sure. And certainly the United States didn’t like it. I think the regime will continue to behave in that manner and I think we’re going to continue to have to either react or back down or ignore it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will talk about that in just a moment.

Andrew Exum, in your view, was this inevitable, it was going to happen just because of the kind of war that is being fought there?

ANDREW EXUM, Former Defense Department Official: Well, I think what Faysal said is very wise, and that often we have seen the tail wag the dog with respect to the Syrian regime and its external sponsors.

Often, they have not carried out what Russia or Iran would like them to do. So, I think that’s very wise. I would also say, however, that where we are in the military campaign against the Islamic State means that U.S. and other coalition forces are going to be in closer proximity to Syrian regime forces.

Now, you know, the legal and policy assumptions that underpin the U.S. and coalition war against the Islamic State was that the Syrian regime couldn’t exert any type of sovereignty east, where the Islamic State has been. That’s beginning to change, and the coalition is starting to spread out as well.

So, unfortunately, you’re seeing those forces in greater proximity, and I expect you are going to see more of these incidents in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that your expectation, that this is just getting more complicated by the day, practically?

FAYSAL ITANI: I think we’re getting closer to our primary objectives towards ISIS, which is to take a certain amount of core territory in Eastern Syria and especially around the Raqqa province.

So, yes, physically, it brings us in greater proximity, but it also poses a threat to the regime that we may end up actually handing over very important strategic territory to our own allies, whether it’s Arabs or most likely the Kurdish-dominated SDF.

And that includes water resources. It includes oil resources. And so now that the regime has stabilized the west enough to be able to throw forces elsewhere, and Iran has as well, then they’re coming in our direction, and I don’t think we have a long-term plan for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I do want to ask you both about that.

But, Andrew Exum, I was struck today. The Russians came — right out of the box, they were saying they’re now going to target any U.S. plane — I’m sorry — any plane by the U.S. coalition that goes into a certain area.

Is this just ripe for either another strike or miscalculation?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes and no.

Yes, of course, this is worrying. I think it’s going to be a real concern to our coalition partners. It’s a pretty robust integrated air defense system over most of Syria. And that is not a fun thing to fly around and through.

Their air defenses are actually not as strong in the east. Russia also cut off the deconfliction hot line. I wouldn’t read too much into that. They have done it before. It in Russia’s interests to be able to deconflict our air operations, just as much as it is in the interests of the United States and the coalition partners.

So, I suspect that, once the temperatures cool a little bit, that those deconfliction channels will be up and running again. But, obviously, it’s worrying. And the Russians, of course, will use this as an opportunity to convince the Americans that we need to be working closer together in Syria, which is something that we have been, for obvious reasons, quite resistant to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

So, Faysal Itani, this does pull the U.S. closer in, doesn’t it?

FAYSAL ITANI: I think what we have tried to do so far in the war is, we have tried to sort of tiptoe around the western part of the country, the war in the west, what we call the civil war usually in our discourse, and focus on the war that we wish to fight, which is the war against ISIS.

I think this is a sign that, actually, as far as the players with the most at stake here, Iran and the Syrian regime, are concerned, these are not separate wars. This is all war over territory and over resources and over influence.

And I think we are having to come to a conclusion, that we’re stumbling into it somewhat, but I think we will get there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it possible, Andrew Exum, to separate the two?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I think Faysal is right.

On the one hand, I think the regime still has quite a lot of consolidation to do in Western Syria, but I think Faysal is correct in that the regime still yearns after the oil and gas resources that are in the east of Syria.

And I think, quite frankly, the regime’s Iranian backers want some sort of land bridge into Iraq, which is why the Euphrates River Valley is so important to perhaps not as much as the regime, but certainly to its Iranian supporters and to Hezbollah as well.

So, yes, to Faysal is right. The strategic geography does not end in Western Syria. It extends to the east as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask both of you if it’s clear to you — Faysal Itani, to you first.

Is it clear to you what the goal of the U.S. mission right now is in Syria?

FAYSAL ITANI: Well, the official goal is clear enough, which is, we’re there to defeat ISIS, to displace it from Raqqa and other territories.

What exactly the territorial scope of that is, is not clear. But what we’re actually doing as this conflict evolves and unfolds and more dimensions are added to it, no, I don’t think — it’s not clear to me. I don’t even know if it’s clear to us, to be honest with you, because I don’t know how important we think it is to compete with the Iranians and the Syrian regime over this territory and over influence in post-ISIS Syria.

It seems like we haven’t made a decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you answer that question, Andrew Exum?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I think largely the same.

I will say that the United States has first off had a legal basis and has had policy agreement on defeating the Islamic State. So that’s been where the U.S. military and its coalition partners have been focused. There has not been consensus or even a legal basis to carry that fight over to the Assad regime.

And so I think the United States and its coalition partners have some real hard choices going forward. And when I say coalition partners, I don’t just mean the international community, but I mean the partners on the ground as well.

For example, when they defeat the Islamic State — and the Islamic State is going to be defeated — or is the United States fine with the territory that’s been won back from the Islamic State falling into the hands of the Assad regime? Is that an appropriate or acceptable policy outcome?

If it’s not, then I think some decisions are going to have to be made quite quickly. Otherwise, we’re going to end up stumbling into a broader conflict without a clear strategy to win that conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And wrapping up, Faysal Itani, how urgent is it that the U.S. make these decisions?

FAYSAL ITANI: Very urgent, because these things that you saw today and have been happening over the — actually over the past few weeks, and they haven’t been happening only as sort of airstrike incidents.

There was actually a ground attack on our partners in Northern Syria. I’m a bit scared that it hasn’t — it doesn’t appear to have actually been wrapped up yet as a strategic discussion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean by the administration.

FAYSAL ITANI: By the United States government, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Andrew Exum, how do you see the pressure on the administration to make this decision?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I think there are competing voices within the administration.

I think the military has been almost myopically focused on defeating the Islamic State, because that’s the mission they have been given. I think there are also some strong voices within the administration that would like to broaden this conflict in order to focus on Iran and Iran’s proxies in Syria.

That’s quite dangerous, obviously. That could be especially dangerous to get in that type of escalation without having the forces on the ground. And there is also no consensus with the United States’ international partners regarding that goal.

So, I think, unfortunately, the administration has yet to make up its mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing simple about this one.

Andrew Exum, Faysal Itani, thank you both.

FAYSAL ITANI: Thank you.

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