The Other Risk of U.S. War With Russia | Opinion

Public attention to U.S.-Russia relations since February has focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and understandably so. The United States' gradually expanding support for Ukraine's defense has enabled the Eastern European nation to repel Russian aggression far better and longer than most anticipated when the war began, but it has also brought the U.S. and Russia worryingly close to conflict. That's a prospect which has even hawks flying scared, because Washington and Moscow's nuclear arsenals, if deployed, are enough to destroy the world many times over.

But there's another risk of U.S.-Russia conflict to which we should pay attention: Both countries continue to have a military presence in Syria. Russian forces are primarily supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's brutal civil war, as well as fighting remnants of the Islamic State. American troops are training enemies of ISIS, limiting the Assad regime's oil access, and conducting strikes against groups including ISIS and "targets linked to Al Qaeda, the Syrian government, and Iran-backed militias."

U.S. and Russian soldiers in Syria aren't in open conflict—in fact, the two militaries maintain a "deconfliction" line of communications—but they are operating in tight quarters, and often, on opposing sides. Close calls are too common, and particularly with rising hostility in Europe, a misstep or miscommunication could plunge us into unwanted and unnecessary war. That's a risk we could eliminate with a safer and more prudent policy for U.S. security: complete military withdrawal from Syria.

The danger of unintended conflict with Russia in Syria was well-illustrated by a pair of Russian operations in Syria this month. As a recent Wall Street Journal report detailed, "Russia carried out airstrikes at the al-Tanf garrison" where U.S. troops are stationed. Russia gave American forces advance notice of the strikes through that communications line, and there were no U.S. casualties. That same week, Russia deployed two Su-34 jet fighters to a site in northeast Syria where the U.S. was conducting a raid on an Islamic State bomb maker, only pulling back after the U.S. scrambled F-16 jets to warn the Russians.

U.S. officials spoke of the incidents with alarm. "We seek to avoid miscalculation or a set of actions that could lead to unnecessary conflict: That remains our goal," said U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Erik Kurilla. "However, Russia's recent behavior has been provocative and escalatory."

U.S. soldiers patrol a village
U.S. soldiers patrol a village in the countryside of Qamishli in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province, on June 12, 2022. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

That's true—on a short time scale. But zoom out to consider several years of U.S.-Russia interaction in Syria and it becomes clear this is a recurring problem.

Russia bombed the al-Tanf base in 2016 and in 2017 issued, then retracted, an ultimatum for immediate U.S. withdrawal from the location. Also in 2017, Russia and the United States both threatened to shoot down the other's planes in western Syria. American troops battled Russian mercenaries (not formally affiliated with Moscow but supportive of the Assad regime) in 2018, and several U.S. troops were mildly concussed after an altercation with Russian forces in armored vehicles in 2020. The Pentagon responded to the 2020 incident by increasing the American deployment to Syria, and just as it did this month, condemning Russian provocation and escalation.

The start of the Biden administration in 2021 has meant little change for U.S. policy in Syria. American boots on the ground continue to number around 900. They continue to pursue the same objectives and remain uncomfortably close to the possibility of larger conflict. The most significant change around the situation in Syria during President Joe Biden's tenure is not in Syria at all: It is the Russian attack on Ukraine. Though avoiding direct conflict with Russia in Syria was important before the Ukraine invasion, averting a U.S.-Russia war is even more important while tensions are high over Ukraine.

The surest way to prevent that stumble is to end U.S. military intervention in Syria. And steering clear of Russia is not the only reason this makes sense: We're also more than 2 years past the territorial defeat of ISIS; Assad's victory in the civil war is all but accomplished; and proxy conflict with NATO ally Turkey is a looming possibility. Moreover, there is no vital U.S. interest at stake in Syria, certainly nothing which justifies the risk ongoing military intervention incurs. Withdrawal was overdue before U.S.-Russian tensions were heightened by the war in Ukraine. It is crucial now.

Bonnie Kristian (@bonniekristian) is the author of the forthcoming book Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community. She is a columnist at Christianity Today and a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.