Escalation is a difficult animal to control, even in the most favorable scenarios. The only true way to avoid a dangerous escalation is not to escalate at all. There are too many variables present in the real world to upset the balance and turn a crisis into a regional war or worse. In short, escalation is a slippery slope and once a nation-state loses its footing anything can happen.
In the case of Syria, we’re talking about an escalation of hostilities in both the political and military contexts. The conflict escalated on the military side today with the Russian airstrikes against opposition forces in northwest Syria. Russia claims the strikes were targeting ISIS held areas, however, US officials have repudiated that claim, saying that so far the Russian strikes do not appear to be against ISIS controlled territory. US Defense Dept. officials have said that Russian fighters hit targets in Homs and Hama. There is no ISIS presence in either area.
Politically, the situation in Syria is running the danger of turning away from an action against ISIS and escalating towards a potential stand-off between the United States and Russia. As mentioned above, there is serious doubt about what opposition group Russian aircraft were actually targeting. As the strikes were launched, Russia requested that the US keep its aircraft away from Syrian airspace. That request was turned down. Secretary of State John Kerry said that US and coalition forces will continue air operations in the same manner they have since the beginning of their involvement in the conflict.
So, now comes a game of diplomatic chicken with increasing stakes. Russia wants a free hand inside of Syrian airspace when it is conducting air operations. The United States will either give into the demand or it won’t. If it does, opposition groups supported by the US and coalition might find themselves targeted by Russian bombs and missiles. If the US refuses to allow Russia to control the airspace, we are looking at a situation where Russian and US aircraft are operating in close proximity and going after separate sets of targets in the same area while carrying live weapons. All it takes in a situation like that is one split second of indecision, or a miscalculation and suddenly Russian and US aircraft are shooting at each other. At that point, all bets are off.
Apologies for this post being so short. I will follow up with more this evening or early tomorrow morning.