Russia Delivers Warning To U.S. After Downing Of Syrian Warplane

17 hours ago
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to talk about developments between the U.S. and Russia after the American military shot down a Syrian warplane yesterday. It's the first time this has happened during the six-year Syrian conflict. The U.S. downed the plane after it bombed U.S.-backed forces who have been trying to recapture Raqqa. That's the self-declared capital of the Islamic State. Russia is not pleased. Moscow said it would suspend the use of the military hotline between the U.S. and Russia that's used to avoid collisions in Syrian-controlled airspace. It's also threatened aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition.

To talk about this, we are joined by Robert Malley. He is vice president for policy of the International Crisis Group. Welcome.

ROBERT MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So put this into perspective for us. I mean how unique is this situation? Is what the U.S. did a real violation as the Russians claim?

MALLEY: Well, first of all, it's becoming less and less unique having conflict above Syria or in Syria between the United States and the Syrian regime or its allies simply because the ground is becoming a much more congested. You have literally a traffic jam between the United States, Russia, the Syrian regime, its allies, the Syrian opposition. And so these incidents risk becoming much more frequent if something isn't done to define the rules of the road.

MCEVERS: I was going to ask about the rules of the road. I mean what are they? Are they clear, or as it gets jammed up with traffic, are they less clear?

MALLEY: No, I mean really it's - not only is it a traffic jam. It's a traffic jam without any traffic cone and a traffic jam where none of the drivers knows where another driver is headed. The only - what had existed and still exists despite what the Russians might have said is some communication between the U.S. and Russia to make sure, since both of them are flying over Syria, that one doesn't inadvertently get in the way of the other.

So we have had for some time now, some years, direct communications between the two. When the Russians say they're going to stop it, let's wait and see. They've threatened that before, but it serves their interest as much as it serves the U.S. interest. So not clear they won't interrupt it, but they certainly don't mind threatening the U.S. with a halt in that communication.

MCEVERS: Is this an escalation? I mean is this going to put everyone in a new phase of this conflict, or can all the different sides sort of come back from this?

MALLEY: I mean all the sides could come back from it. The problem is it's hard to come back when people are not talking. There certainly is no dialogue between the U.S. and the Syrian regime, and there hasn't been...

MCEVERS: Right.

MALLEY: ...Since the outbreak of the uprising in 2011. There's no dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, really, and the Iranian ground forces, the Iranian allied forces in Syria since the Trump administration took office. There's no communication with them. So it's much harder to bring people back from the brink even though nobody really wants a war. Certainly the regime doesn't want to go to war with the United States. But if there's no way of dialing it back, then you might inadvertently stumble into something that nobody wants.

MCEVERS: You served under President Obama as the Middle East coordinator. Part of that was dealing with ISIS. What would you advise at this moment?

MALLEY: Well, I think the two things that are needed - and again, the reason we are where we are today, which we weren't under the Obama administration, is first of all because geography has caught up with politics. The two sides were fighting in their corners. But now that they've beaten back ISIS, they are coming much closer to one another, and so there is a risk of collision. Second is the rising tension between the U.S. and Iran, which obviously has repercussions in Syria. And third is the unpredictability of the Trump administration, which leaves everyone guessing what they're going to do next.

With those three things, I think what's needed is channels of communication - Russia-U.S., ideally Russia-U.S.-Iran, but that seems to be a harder thing - and, second, some implicit or explicit understanding about what the end-state is going to be. When ISIS is dislodged from these areas of Syria, who's going to control the towns and cities? Who's going to be in charge? If you don't settle that, then they're going to be fighting today the war after the war against ISIS.

MCEVERS: How likely do you think it is that a dialogue of that kind could happen?

MALLEY: Again, at this point, it seems unlikely other than the U.S.-Russian dialogue, which is important because the U.S. can speak for large segments of the Syrian opposition, and the Russians can speak to - about the - for the Syrian regime and even to some extent for the Iranians. So that dialogue is important. But if the Iranians, for example, feel like the U.S. is really rising - raising its tone and thinking of taking hostile action against Iran, they will have no interest in calming things down in Syria. So the key now is to try to understand where each party wants to go and make sure they're not running and tripping over each other.

MCEVERS: Robert Malley, vice president for policy of the International Crisis Group, thank you.

MALLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.