Tensions surrounding the Middle East are escalating rapidly following the U.S. downing of a Syrian fighter jet.
An “aircraft from the ‘international coalition’ targeted one of our fighter planes in the Resafa region of southern Raqa province this afternoon while it was conducting a mission against the terrorist Islamic State group,” the Syrian army said in a statement. The “flagrant attack was an attempt to undermine the efforts of the army as the only effective force capable with its allies … in fighting terrorism across its territory.”
Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted that the U.S. was wounding anti-terrorism initiatives. “It is, if you like, help to those terrorists that the US is fighting against, declaring they are carrying out an anti-terrorism policy.”
The Russian Defense Ministry further demonstrated its alliance with the Syrian government, saying Monday it would begin to target U.S. jets flying west of the Euphrates River in Syria, the Associated Press reports. The ministry condemned the attack as a “massive violation of international law” and urged the United States to issue a full explanation for their action.
The U.S. claims its response was provoked after the Syrian government dropped bombs near Syrian Democratic Force (ADF) fighters, driving the U.S-allied fighters away from Ja’Din, a previously SDF-occupied city, according to CNN.
The U.S. Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve issued a statement defending the response: “In accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces, [the Syrian jet] was immediately shot down by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet,” the statement said. “Following the pro-Syrian forces attack, the Coalition contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established de-confliction line to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing… The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat.”
This is not the first time in recent weeks that the U.S. has resorted to violence in Syria. Two months ago, the U.S. destroyed a Syrian airbase that was responsible for a chemical weapons attack against Syrian rebels. The U.S. targets were not supposed to produce civilian causalities, but according to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the strike killed 15.
In the past four weeks, the U.S. has issued three airstrikes on pro-Assad forces that had trespassed de-confliction zones, ABC reports. Yet regardless of the intention or motive, each subsequent act of violence potentially moves the U.S. closer toward another Middle Eastern quagmire.
Every country involved defends their own use of force while simultaneously condemning other countries’ similar use of force in order to justify additional action. It’s a perpetual cycle.
In the U.S., the conflict has reached a point where violence has become the obvious response and those who push back against the tendencies are lambasted. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI2) was vehemently critical of President Trump’s order to launch Tomahawk missiles and was outspoken in her skepticism regarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s involvement in the chemical weapons attack. “Why should we just blindly follow this escalation of a counter-productive regime-change war? There’s responsibility that goes around,” Gabbard said, “Standing here pointing fingers does not accomplish peace for the Syrian people. It will not bring about an end to this war.”
Gabbard went on to bring up how the Bush administration, at the time, occupied ‘supposedly undeniable’ evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet, years later, we would come to find out that the evidence was wrong.
Despite the reasoning for her skepticism, several members of her own party took the comments to be an endorsement of Assad’s violence. Neera Tanden, one of Hillary Clinton’s former advisers, denounced Gabbard, saying “People of Hawaii’s 2nd District — was it not enough for you that your rep met with a murderous dictator? Will this move you?”
The meeting to which Tanden alluded occurred back in January, when Gabbard, unannounced to the public, traveled to Syria for—what she called—a “fact-finding” mission. “Initially I hadn’t planned on meeting him,” Gabbard told CNN’s Jake Tapper following the meeting. “When the opportunity arose to meet with him, I did so, because I felt it’s important that if we profess to truly care about the Syrian people, about their suffering, then we’ve got to be able to meet with anyone that we need to if there is a possibility that we could achieve peace. And that’s exactly what we talked about.”
Gabbard’s efforts have elicited almost no positive recognition from mainstream thinking. Because violence has been the answer for so long, it will continue to be the answer, and any dissidents will be ostracized.
Yet, U.S. violence and, more specifically, nation building, as has been seen time and time again, is not able to bring about productive regime change. Rather, this mentality has strengthened terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida.
Gabbard is correct in that meeting with leaders of other countries, even those we currently consider our enemies, will be critical to carrying out alternatives to violence. One of those alternatives, according to a 2013 article by Alternet, is for the United Nations to execute “an embargo on arms, military supplies and logistical support” going to Syria.
At this point, many Middle Eastern countries are committed to supporting the Syrian rebels in their pushback against the Assad regime. Unfortunately, according to a British study from 2015, “some 60 [percent] of Syria’s major rebel groups are Islamist extremists, and many of the groups share the same aims,” BBC reports.
Furthermore, the U.S. provides many of the rebel-supporting countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar with weapons, which end up aiding the rebel groups.
The good news is the U.S. has the leverage to prevent weapons from continuously ending up in the wrong hands by simply threatening to withhold the weapons from these countries provided they remain arming rebels. However, that still leaves Russia, who has been a strident supporter of the Assad regime and the Syrian war has allowed the Russian government to sell those arms.
Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Al Jazeera that the Syrian operation has provided “excellent opportunity to show off the goods.” In fact, according to Marketplace.org, Russia has profited billions of dollars from these sales, meaning a significant negotiation with Russia would be required. In order for an effective weapons embargo to occur, Russian cooperation is crucial.
Some form of sanctions on weapons entering Syria is only the beginning of solving a crisis that has spiralled out of control. Several other measures must be taken to reduce regional tensions and ultimately achieve peace.
The U.S. and its allies want to hold the Syrian president accountable for the atrocities he has committed against his people. But, before any justice can be pursued, the region must be stabilized, and that requires international diplomacy from both sides of the Syrian conflict.