- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Russia is warning the United States that any attacks on Syrian-government held territory would be tantamount to an attack on Russian servicemen, heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow that have already reached post-Cold war highs, and coming just a week after the collapse of a ceasefire in the Syrian carnage.
Responding to press reports that the Obama administration was again considering striking Syrian military targets in reprisal for the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and civilian apartment blocks in Aleppo, Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov warned about the consequences of any attacks on Syrian forces.
“Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen,” he said, adding that his troops might use freshly-deployed, advanced air-defense systems to strike out at objects in the sky that they can’t identify.
Russian air defense crews manning the S-300 and S-400 systems are “unlikely to have time to determine…the exact flight paths of missiles and then who the warheads belong to,” he warned. “And all the illusions of amateurs about the existence of ‘invisible’ jets will face a disappointing reality,” he said, in apparent reference to the stealthy characteristics of U.S. aircraft.
He also grimly advised U.S. generals and what he called “hotheads” in Washington to make a “thorough calculation of the possible consequences of such plans” to fly near Syrian or Russian forces.
The Russians and Syrian government have insisted that a Sept. 17 airstrike near Deir Ezzor that killed dozens of Syrian troops is proof that Washington supported the Islamic State and Islamist rebels, despite American claims that they had simply hit the wrong target on a crowded battlefield, and that the Syrians may not have been wearing uniforms.
Konashenkov referenced the strike, saying “we took all necessary measures to exclude any similar accidents happening to Russian forces in Syria.”
U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. John J. Thomas told FP Thursday that he wouldn’t comment specifically on the latest statements from Moscow, but “we look at actions, we’re interested in why they’re moving some of these system in, there’s not really an air force there to defend against” other than aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Thursday that the hotline between U.S. and Russian officials to ensure their aircraft don’t run into one another over Syria remains open, and Thomas added that the coalition and the Russians are “looking into what the possibilities are” for expanding how the two communicate.
Earlier this week, Russian officials confirmed the deployment of the S-300 anti-aircraft system to protect its naval base at Tartus. The system has a range of about 150 miles, which gives the battery good coverage of government-held territory well inland.
Moscow has also recently bolstered the number attack planes and bombers at its air base in Latakia, and this week sent three missile corvettes from its Black Sea Fleet to join other Russian warships in the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast. All three ships — The Serpukhov, The Zelyony Dol, and The Mirazh, are equipped with Kalibr and Malakhit cruise missiles which can be launched to hit targets on land well within Syria’s borders. The ships are expected to be joined next month by Moscow’s sole aircraft carrier.
Photo credit: PAUL GYPTEAU/AFP/Getty Images