Without debate and with little fanfare, the US has announced a major escalation in the Syrian conflict. In a move pregnant with disaster, the Pentagon has declared an "exclusion zone" over a part of northeastern Syria around the town of Hasaka.
This is an extension of a dangerous development over the weekend in which the US scrambled fighter jets to intercept Syrian planes that were attempting to bomb targets in Hasaka. That episode did not see any shots fired between the planes. However, with the new announcement, it is possible that future encounters could result in dogfights between US and Syrian warplanes. And since Syria is backed by both Iran and Russia, this would be a major progression of the indirect proxy war going on currently.
All of which might have a reasonable person wondering why any of this is occurring? Why did the US escalate the conflict, and why now?
The answer from the Pentagon is... self-defense. That's not a joke. Here was how Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook explained it:
Our warning to the Syrians is the same that we've had for some time, that we're going to defend our forces and they would be advised not to fly in areas where our forces have been operating.Seen in isolation, that statement sounds sort of reasonable. But in context, it is not at all.
What Cook is referring to is the open but little-discussed fact that the US has special operations troops on the ground in Syria. These troops are embedded with a Syrian Kurdish faction called the YPG, which is generally regarded as one of the US's more reliable allies in the fight against ISIS. And for the most part, the YPG has kept its focus on ISIS. Partly this may have been a matter of priorities, but it could also be explained by geography. The Kurdish forces are located primarily in the northern parts of Syria, and so most of the adjacent territory is held by ISIS rather than forces affiliated with the Syrian government. Thus, they are usually pitted against ISIS in the current conflict.
Hasaka, however, is the exception to the general rule above. Here, the YPG and the pro-government forces had generally split control of the city with relative peace, but fighting broke out in recent days.
It's not clear who started the fighting, but it is clear that the fighting has continued for multiple days. And because US special operations troops are embedded with the YPG, this means the US forces are now engaged, directly or indirectly, with forces aligned with the Syrian government.
While US proxies of some description have been engaged against the pro-government troops routinely in other parts of country, to my recollection, this is the first time a force that contained US troops was fighting directly against the Syrian regime or its partners.
And that's how we get to the pretense of self-defense advanced by the Pentagon. In an overt violation of Syrian sovereignty, international law, and the US Constitution, the US sent some 300 troops into Syria to embed with an insurgent group. This group is now fighting pro-government forces. And so the US is declaring that it will shoot down Syrian warplanes who attempt to bomb the insurgent group.
To put a finer point on it, analogies are always helpful. Of course, it's somewhat silly to speak of another country invading the US, but please humor me. Imagine the Vermont secession movement took an inexplicably violent, imperialist turn and sought to conquer the rest of New England before breaking away into an independent country. Ever interested in revenge, suppose Russia backed this secession movement and embedded some of its own elite officers within New England to help them out. Next, the US attempted to conduct airstrikes against the secessionists only to be threatened by Russian fighter jets. And Russia declares an "exclusionary zone" over the conflict area in order to "defend its forces".
That is the equivalent of the US position in Syria right now. First, we invaded, then we got in a battle with government forces, and now we are claiming self-defense. It is equal parts reckless, ridiculous, and illegal, and it is the official US policy in Syria.
This is how conflicts spiral out of control.
Newly protected from government airstrikes, the YPG is less likely to pursue a ceasefire in Hasaka against government forces. The Syrian government is similarly unlikely to surrender more territory without a fight, for fear of establishing precedent. And the US is unlikely to back down from this new policy, for fear of the domestic political fallout. (Can't you just imagine the ready-made attack lines--"The Democrats abandoned our allies on the ground in Syria, so they could appease Assad and the Ayatollah of Iran!")
The end result is an incredibly combustible situation. And if and when it explodes, there's little doubt that American politicians will breathlessly decry it as an act of aggression by the other side.