In a telephone interview from Baghdad, new Iraq-Syria War Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend tried to echo the boundless optimism of every other US commander when put in charge of one of the nation’s various open-ended wars, vowing to see all of ISIS dead, and virtually ousted from both countries within a year.
The real story of his comments, however, was less the war he’s fighting now than the wars he’s threatening to fight along the way, as Lt. Gen. Townsend pointedly threatened both Russia and Syria over recent flights and airstrikes around the northeastern city of Hasakeh.
Townsend said he’d “informed” the Russians that US warplanes are prepared to defend US troops on the ground if they feel threatened in future strikes in and around Hasakeh. US troops are known to be embedded with Kurdish forces in the Hasakeh Province, but their exact locations aren’t known.
Even so, when fighting broke out in the city between Syrian and Kurdish forces, and Syrian warplanes struck the Kurds, US officials complained they’d had to scramble troops out of the area. They also made a point of sending their own warplanes to “confront” the Syrian ones.
Syrian warplanes are still flying over the area, despite US threats, while Russia is trying to get the military and the Kurds to stop fighting one another. Russia has been hacking the Kurds in some offensives, and appears to see this fighting as an unwelcome distraction from their focus on ISIS and the Nusra Front.
US officials, on the other hand, seem to see this as a great opportunity to transition from the war against ISIS, which despite all their rhetoric isn’t accomplishing much, and into a war against Syria’s government, which they see as a more straightforward, and potentially more winnable, battle.
US intelligence officials have been arguing that point since last year, and State Department officials have also been pushing the idea of shifting the war to one of regime change, on the idea that the pro-US rebels are never going to get anywhere unless the US props them up as a government first.
That said, attacking Syrian warplanes over Syria is almost certain to quickly bring the Russians into the war as well, which is why it has in practice been unthinkable to do so. Despite that obvious problem looming just over the horizon, however, US officials are still eagerly rushing forward on a confrontation.