The top United States Air Force commander in the Middle East told JNS that blatant Russian aggression towards U.S. forces in Syrian skies could lead to similar action against Israeli forces and is “certainly a concern” to the Pentagon.
Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, combined forces air component commander for U.S. Central Command, expressed dismay on June 21 during a briefing with reporters about Russian pilots’ increasingly unprofessional and dangerous behavior. The pilots have flown into designated U.S.-inhabited airspace over Syria and conducted maneuvers that increase the likelihood of direct conflict.
U.S. forces are in Syria largely to control, contain and eliminate remnants of the Islamic State.
“We certainly think of our interactions with the Russians in Syria in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. From my perspective, I see the Russian air force as being more aggressive in Syria, perhaps as a way to compensate for the fact that they have had to move capability and capacity out of Syria in order to support the war in Ukraine,” Grynkewich said.
Grynkewich surmised that Russia, a critical patron of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is becoming increasingly beholden to Iran due to Tehran’s provision of deadly attack drones used by Russian forces in Ukraine.
He also criticized Russia for rewarding a medal in March to a pilot, who unintentionally made contact with and downed a U.S. MQ-9 aircraft over the Black Sea in March. That line of thinking, Grynkewich said, increases the risk that opposing fighters, both with live weapons on board, will tragically miscalculate a situation.
“It was a total accident,” he said of the Russian pilot’s actions. “As a reward for that unprofessional behavior, which is absolutely egregious from an airmanship perspective, that pilot received medals. And so anytime you have an air force that has fallen so low on the professional ladder that they’re giving medals for buffoonery in the air, you’ve really got to wonder what they’re thinking.”
Israel regularly flies missions into Syria to take out hostile forces attempting to smuggle weapons and other provisions to other points in the region, as well as to strike strategic targets along those routes, including Syrian airports.
Iran has gained a deadly foothold in Syria and uses it as a base to import and transport supplies to its anti-Israel proxies throughout the region, including to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
Deepening Israeli aid and support for Ukraine has already been a source of high tension in the Israeli-Russian relationship, and with a push from Iran, there is a potential for Russia—which largely controls Syrian airspace—to impose more restrictive freedom of action over Israeli operations in the country.
In response to a question from JNS about what impact Russia doing Iran’s bidding in Syria might have on Israeli operations over Syria—given Israeli support for Ukraine—Grynkewich said the situation is complex and dynamic.
“I can’t speak for the Israelis and how they view the Russian and Iranian connection, but I can tell you that the growing connection between Russia and Iran, and if they are able to open up avenues where Iran is able to push lethal aid through Syria that threatens Israel, that’s certainly a concern for the United States,” he told JNS.
“Israel is clearly one of our close partners in the region—one of many but one that we’ve had a longstanding relationship with over the years and a long history with,” he added.
How its relationship with Iran affects Russia’s relationship with Israel remains to be seen, according to Grynkewich.
“It’s something that we watch closely in concert with our Israeli partners, and we’ll see how it plays out,” he said. “Certainly, the Israelis have every right to act in their own defense, and the United States has an ironclad commitment to the defense of Israel, and that will continue.”
Grynkewich told reporters broadly that Tehran wants the anti-ISIS coalition to depart from Syria in order “to have Iranian-aligned groups move advanced conventional weapons and lethal capabilities across Syria for their own purposes,” including to threaten Israel.
“To me, the growing relationship between Iran and Russia will have a big impact on exactly how Iran moderates or does not moderate its behavior in Syria,” he said.
Lowering tensions in the region is good, but despite warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Grynkewich there should be no mistaking Tehran’s intentions.
“Any regime that is more worried about that, more worried about pushing lethal aid than taking care of its own people, is one that just by its very nature is going to continue to foment instability,” he said. “They require that instability to continue to operate to have something that they can rally their people against in order to maintain their illegitimate hold on power.”