The Trump administration has warned Russia against sending advanced S-300 air defense systems to the Syrian government, saying that doing so could endanger American forces operating there.
Administration officials were responding to reports on Monday which said that Russia’s defense ministry had made the decision following the downing of a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane last week by a Syrian air defense unit operating an older S-200 system.
The downing of the Russian plane came after Israeli F-16s bombed a site were Iranian forces were believed to be transferring missiles to Hezbollah forces. Reports said that the S-200 missile locked onto the Russian plane by mistake instead of the Israeli fighters.
The Russian foreign ministry and defense ministry blamed Israel for the downing of the Il-20, which killed all 15 Russian airmen aboard. Both ministries claimed that the Israeli jets used the Russian aircraft for “cover” as they retreated back to Israel over the Mediterranean Sea.
National Security Adviser John Bolton called the Russian plan to send S-300 systems to Syria a “significant escalation” in a region already fraught with competing great power and regional power interests.
“We think introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians and something that we hope, if these press reports are accurate, they would reconsider,” Bolton said, adding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be taking up the matter with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the UN General Assembly this week.
“We have American forces in the area we’re concerned about,” Bolton said. “The Israelis have a legitimate right to self-defense against this Iranian aggressive behavior, and what we’re all trying to do is reduce tensions, reduce the possibility of major new hostilities. That’s why the president has spoken to this issue and why we would regard introducing the S-300 as a major mistake.”
Analysis: In addition to warning Moscow, the Trump administration also announced a ‘new’ Syrian policy: U.S. forces will remain engaged there until Iranian forces have left the country.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton told reporters.
That is a departure from the administration’s previously stated objective, which, as noted by Defense Secretary James Mattis, was to eliminate ISIS and ensure that conditions on the ground did not favor a resurgence of the caliphate.
“Right now our troops inside Syria are there for one purpose, and that’s under the U.N. authorization about defeating ISIS,” Mattis told reporters when asked about Bolton’s statement.
The Associated Press noted further:
Mattis did not explicitly support or dispute Bolton’s statement, although his description of the role and mission of U.S. troops in Syria did not include outlasting Iran.
Pressed to say whether he agreed with Bolton’s statement, Mattis said, “I’ll let Ambassador Bolton speak for himself,” but added later that he had spoken to Bolton twice Monday. “I think we’re on the same sheet of music,” which he said means supporting U.N.-brokered efforts to reach a political settlement. “There is no daylight between his appreciation of the situation and mine.”
In as clear a warning as possible, the Trump administration is informing Moscow that not only does Washington back Israel’s right to self-defense, it is willing to assist in the defense of Israeli interests in Syria, which are aimed at preventing Iran from gaining a foothold there with which to threaten Israeli security. This represents a significant new American commitment to the region, and it also means that the administration is now actively engaged in thwarting Iranian expansionism.
Will that be enough to deter Russia from deploying S-300s in Syria? Probably not. But Bolton’s right; S-300 deployments are a “significant escalation” of tensions in Syria. They will also become targets if one of them is used to down an Israeli or American fighter.