The US - Russia spat over Syria isn't fading away

Yesterday the war of words was heating up between Russia and the United States, as opposed to the war of wars involving the shooting down of a Russian-made Syrian fighter bomber. Telling America that its jets will now be treated as targets was, in some respects, a rather predictable response for the Russians, but when such diplomatic flare-ups take place they frequently sink below the media waves again fairly quickly. That doesn’t seem to be happening in this case, or at least not so far. In fact, our side is turning up the heat another notch, claiming that we have a right of self-defense in these matters. (Newsweek)

A public war of words between Washington and Moscow continued late Monday as the U.S. said it had a “right to self defense” in Syria near the eastern city of Raqqa after Russia warned it would treat U.S. coalition aircraft as targets and condemned the downing of a Syrian jet…

“The escalation of hostilities among the many factions that are operating in this region doesn’t help anybody. And the Syrian regime and others in the regime need to understand that we will retain the right of self-defense, of coalition forces aligned against ISIS,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

As I said, what Russia has done (or at least said) so far was not only predictable but almost mandatory. They are allied with the regime of Bashar al-Assad and it was one of his jets that was blown out of the sky. The fact that it was a piece of Russian technology only adds additional salt to pour in an open wound. If they didn’t come out with some sort of bellicose barrage they would look like they were being subservient in the eyes of their own people. But having done that bit of public relations housekeeping, we would normally expect things to cool off.

So is it still just a symbolic war of words or something more serious? At least one of our allies seems to feel it’s the latter because Australia just announced that they are temporarily suspending their participation in Syrian airspace encounters. (Associated Press)

Australia on Tuesday suspended its airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Syria as a precaution, after a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane earlier this week and Russia warned the U.S.-led coalition from flying over Syrian army positions west of the Euphrates River.

The announcement from Canberra came as a brief, two-day truce collapsed in the southern Syrian city of Daraa and nearby areas where government forces have gained ground.

Australia is part of a U.S.-led coalition that has been waging war against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.

This one is a bit more difficult to parse. Relations between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Trump haven’t exactly been smooth as silk this year. Between the previous refugee resettlement negotiations and the recent revelation that Turnbull has been doing Trump imitations, the tension between the two leaders seems to have grown. So was this a genuine sense of concern over the security of Australia’s jets or a way to highlight the dust-up between Trump and Putin by “splintering” the alliance?

Neither would speak well of Turnbull. When you join such a coalition and agree to send your air force, you already know that it’s a war zone and your pilots are going into harm’s way. Yanking them out when the going gets slightly more rocky isn’t really a case of playing a strong hand. And if this is some fit of pique intended to give Trump a black eye in the press, that’s a rather petty way to play the international diplomacy game.

Either way, war with Russia is something that nobody (including the Russians) can afford. Somebody needs to deescalate the situation quickly. Of course, that may be more difficult now because nobody seems entirely sure whether or not the “deconfliction hotline” is still plugged in.