Last June a US Navy F/A-18 fighter plane shot down a Syrian Su-22 ground attack plane over central Syria. The Americans said the Syrian army jet had endangered “US partner forces” by dropping its bomb load “near SDF fighters” and their actions were therefore justified and “defensive”.
In reality the Syrian jet had been on a bombing mission against ISIS which was just a few kilometers away, but became momentarily disoriented. It is not at all clear that the Syrian plane ever even released its bomb load, or that the US-backed Kurdish fighters were ever in any danger. Nonetheless the Americans attacked the jet over its own country.
Similarly this past November and December the US military openly threatened to shoot down Russian jets over eastern Syria. It went so far as to have its F-22s fighters simulate attacks on the Russian planes — two such incidents were reported by the Russians (there could have easily been more), with the Americans confirming one.
Supposedly this was warranted because by flying in weapons range of “partnered forces” (Kurdish YPG) and the US troops embedded with them the Russians were engaging in “alarming”, “threatening” and “potentially threatening” behavior. Never mind that the Russians were actually flying strike sorties against ISIS, over 600 hundred of them in direct support of the US-backed YPG fighters. (Or that American officers themselves acknowledged they, unlike the Russians, didn’t have a legal basis to be in Syria in the first place.)
Fast forward two months. The Turkish military is staging a wholesale assault on the ethnic Kurdish Afrin enclave in northwestern Syria defended by the local YPG/SDF fighters. As it does so it is also threatening to bomb any convoys of US-trained SDF fighters who would rush to Afrin from the separate and much larger Kurdish-held territory in northeast Syria. To underscore their point the Turks are already shelling the SDF-held northeast in many places and have carried a handful of airstrikes there as well which both the Turkish and Kurdish side have documented and confirmed.
Now, the US has stayed clear of Afrin throughout the war and has no presence there, but what about the Turkish bombardment of the main SDF-held territory in the northeast?
In that part of Syria the SDF is heavily US-backed. They receive US air support, artillery support, are ferried into combat by US helicopters, have US special forces embedded with them, receive US training, armored vehicles, and other supplies. In total there are no fewer than ten US military bases in the SDF-held northeast, with nearly 2,000 American military personnel on the ground (and probably hundreds of contractors more).
Syrians and Russians can not even fly anti-ISIS missions near the US-backed SDF without being shot down or threatened, yet the Turks can wreak havoc on US-backed forces without the US uttering a peep.
Where is the American resolve to not tolerate attacks on partnered forces now?
Where is that vaunted “collective Coalition self-defense of partnered forces”? When the Pentagon shot down the Syrian Su-22 pilot over his own country it boasted it would “not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat”. Strangely, because now it seems there is nothing but hesitation.
Of course, it’s crystal clear what this is about. Turkey, a nation-state of 80 million with a large military on NATO’s crucial southern flank is way too important – even with the independent-minded Erdogan at the helm – to the Empire. Completely alienating this traditional anti-Soviet/anti-Russian asset for the sake of a regional militia in the Middle East would be foolish indeed.
And yet it makes for a cute situation. The Pentagon will defend its armed proxies in Syria (even when they don’t need defending) from their legal government against which they are in open rebellion, but should an important NATO ally cross an international border to slap them around it will be full of understanding and hesitation.