Last Monday, September 17, a Russian surveillance plane was shot down off the coast of Syria by Syrian forces targeting Israeli F-16s. The news caused alarm across the world. But the potential for this kind of incident to cause a dangerous escalation among nuclear-armed states – perhaps its most frightening implication – was largely overlooked. Establishing solid communications networks in Syria and around the world is absolutely necessary to avoid miscommunication that could lead to a major disaster.
Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu said the Israeli planes had been using the Russian plane as a cover as they targeted weapons facilities on the ground. He added that Russia had not been notified of the Israeli operation until just before the plane was shot down. This initially bellicose response was later softened by President Putin, who said in a statement on Tuesday the incident was caused by “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
The conflict has real implications for global stability that reach far beyond Syria’s borders. The Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister told the Washington Post, “With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come.” In an unstable environment with multiple actors pursuing their own desired outcomes, it’s hard to imagine that this will be the last instance of “friendly fire” in Syria.
With a meaningful political settlement in Syria an increasingly far-fetched objective, this could well be the new reality we live with for years to come.
The United States, Russia, Israel, and Iran have intervened in the Syrian conflict; of these four, only Iran does not have nuclear weapons. There are three ongoing adversarial relationships that could easily be exacerbated by events in Syria: relations between the United States and Russia, between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Iran. While Russia and Israel have relatively good relations, the fact that it happened at all shows how fragile, and how essential, the communications networks are for avoiding a potentially disastrous escalation.
Russia-NATO relations provide a good contrasting case. Potentially provocative incidents take place between NATO and Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea on a near-daily basis. However, even in cases where individual flight crews choose not to maintain contact with other aircraft, there are robust, well-established, decades-old communications channels between the two sides that can prevent catastrophic misunderstandings.
In most war zones, this established communications infrastructure is almost always lacking. In Syria, the focus should be on cooperating to establish and maintain robust communications networks and making sure that a moment of crisis does not lead to an escalation between nuclear powers.
Dismissing such an altercation as a “new normal” allows it to be forgotten — until it happens again. Clear-cut communications channels are necessary to avoid a blowout between major powers. Without this infrastructure, another disaster will almost certainly happen, and it could be even worse.