American involvement in the Syrian civil war hit a new complication last night when USAF planes were grounded by a Russian missile threat. With tensions already high after last month’s Turkish ambush of a Russian jet, US commanders have restricted flights over key parts of the country to unmanned drones.

The latest flashpoint is an area designated Box 4 by the US military, and it’s in a very awkward place. Box 4 is northeast of Aleppo and very close to the Turkish-Syrian border. This border is vital to Islamic State, because it’s the main route for new fighters coming in and oil going out, and closing it is a high priority for both Russia and NATO.

It doesn’t seem to be such a high priority for Turkey, because despite the country’s large and professional military they’ve made little effort to stop the cross-border traffic. Russia is openly losing patience with Turkey’s activities in the border region, as we saw last month when their bombers pounded a Turkish-aligned rebel group in retaliation for the death of their pilot.

Missiles lock on as Russia ups the stakes

In the latest escalation, Russia has effectively denied US aircraft access to Box 4 by illuminating them with missile fire control radars. The airspace above Syria is being constantly swept by all sorts of military radars right now but locking on a fire control radar is a big step further.

The message it sends is that the plane being “painted” is now a target and missiles are ready to launch. The system the Russians are using is an SA-17, known as “Grizzly” to NATO and Buk-M to Russia. It’s an advanced system whose Mach 4 missiles can reach out 19 miles and hit targets from treetop height up to 82,000 feet.

It’s also agile, accurate and very hard to jam; analysts estimate that a targeted plane has a 95% chance of being hit.

Tangled alliances

The problem right now is that while the west and Russia share the aim of defeating Islamic State they’re totally opposed on the fate of the Syrian government. NATO want President Assad’s regime gone; Russia, while they might be softening on the future of Assad himself, are committed to maintaining the political structure.

This means that while the USA is giving both weapons and air support to anti-regime groups, Russia is bombing them at least as hard as it’s hitting ISIS.

Over the last two days Russia has moved at least one SA-17 system within range of Box 4 and begun locking up any US aircraft its search radars detect. Locking on a fire control radar is a hostile act, and the only sensible step for American commanders is to keep manned flights away from the missile kill zone – the risk to pilots is just too high. Flights by the more expendable drones continue but Russia now has control of the air over Box 4, and they’re using it to hammer US-supported rebel groups.

Law of the jungle?

International law is not on the west’s side here.

NATO has a UN mandate to destroy ISIS, but it doesn’t have one to remove Assad. Meanwhile the Russians are in Syria at the invitation of the government, and they’re within their rights to shoot down any warplane that enters Syrian airspace without Assad’s permission. That’s a step Putin and his generals won’t take lightly – although after the November 24 incident we can assume Turkish planes are fair game – but the use of fire control radar shows that Russia is serious about its goals.

So far it looks like Russia only wants to shut NATO out of certain areas; it can be no accident that they used the medium-range SA-17 to apply the pressure and that carries a message too. But at their Latakia base they have the SA-21 “Growler”, also known as the S-400, and its 250-mile range takes in over 80% of Syria – including Box 4.

If those systems start locking up aircraft the message will be that Russia wants us right out of Syria, but so far they haven’t crossed that line. All the same, a situation that was already tense and complex just got a lot worse.

Image by Vitaly Kuzmin and released under CC BY SA 3.0 license

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