The news is alive this afternoon with reports that U.S. strikes had killed scores of Russian fighters in Syria, with some news outlets reporting as many as 200 Russian casualties. There are a few points to keep in mind about this incident:
- First, this incident did not involve actual Russian military, but mercenaries ("security consultants"), probably working for the Assad regime. The Bloomberg article that I cited above suggests that they may have been working for a Russian security firm called Wagner.
- Second, as alluded to above, this was not aggression by the U.S. forces, but part of the defense of a combined U.S. and Kurdish forces in the Deir Ezzor region after the Russian mercenary force initiated the attack.
- Third, the Russian government does not appear too excited about the incident. In fact, the article indicates that the U.S. forces "used the deconfliction line to get Russia’s go-ahead to defend coalition forces against the attackers," and that the Russians had not protested the decision to launch the air strikes.
- Fourth, it is not clear that all those killed and wounded were Russian mercenaries, but that there may have been others forces intermixed.
When an Israeli jet crashed after being shot down over Syria over the weekend, it marked a serious escalation in the Syrian Civil War. But it also reflected an ongoing reality, one that is growing more dangerous: Syria’s war encompasses at least three other international conflicts, each of which are heating up.
In the last few weeks alone, Turkey has clashed with Syrian Kurds and threatened a U.S.-controlled town in Syria; an Israeli fighter jet that was part of a response to an incursion into Israeli territory by an Iranian drone launched from Syria took Syrian anti-aircraft fire, forcing its two pilots to eject and parachute into Israeli territory; and U.S. forces repelled an attack by Russian fighters, killing an unknown number of them that reports suggest could be in the hundreds.
Taken individually, each one of the clashes has the potential to turn into something more dangerous. Taken together, they suggest the reasons why even after the defeat of ISIS, Syria cannot hope for stability to return soon—and why the next chapter could be even worse. “The issues have been out there: Kurdish-Turkish-American tensions; Iran-Syria-Israel tensions,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told me. “But … we’ve gotten to a level not reached before, and it’s all coming at once.”