The United States has deployed its air and naval assets in the Middle East amid what the Department of Defense sees as very aggressive moves by Russia and Iran.
In Syria, a Russian Su-35 fighter jet conducted a very close fly-by to a United States MC-12 surveillance aircraft, putting the lives of the four American crew members at risk. Meanwhile, Iranian naval forces have seized at least three oil tankers transiting close to Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf.
One such incident, involving the seizure of a Panama-flagged tanker that traveled through the Gulf of Oman, led to complaints from the United Arab Emirates that the U.S. is not doing enough to secure the region's hostile waterways.
In response, the Pentagon deployed a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer – the U.S.S. Thomas Hudner – as well as fighter jets like the F-16 and the high-end F-35 to safeguard American interests in the region. The Navy destroyer and the F-16s are stationed at the Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain and have commenced patrols over the Persian Gulf to ensure the safety of commercial shipping.
According to the Pentagon, the Russian fighter jet's aggressive maneuver over Syrian airspace hindered the ability of the MC-12 crew to conduct its surveillance mission. At the time, the MC-12 was conducting surveillance in support of operations against Islamic State cells in Syria.
In recent weeks, there have been multiple instances of Russian fighter jets harassing U.S. military assets, including MQ-9 drones. These encounters have involved Russian jets flying closely to the drones, forcing them to take evasive actions and deploy flares. U.S. and Russian military officers have been in communication over a deconfliction phone line to protest the actions of the other side during these incidents. (Related: Chinese fighter jet flies too close to US recon plane flying over South China Sea.)
The situation in Syria remains complex, with both the U.S. and Russia accusing the other of violating international laws. Moscow claimed U.S. forces in Syria are supporting the Islamic State's continued existence to maintain leverage against the Syrian government. It also accused Washington of covertly supporting other extremist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda since 2011 in the hope of toppling President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in the region have partnered with the anti-Islamic State and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces since at least 2015, and have established multiple permanent bases in northeastern Syria.
That partnership allowed the U.S. to exert influence over crucial energy and wheat-producing regions. Russia said this has hindered Damascus' efforts to rebuild the country since the outbreak of the civil war and the Islamic State's advance over Syria.
Additionally, allegations have surfaced regarding the involvement of U.S. forces in the theft and looting of Syrian oil and its transportation to American bases in Iraq for sale.
The situation is further complicated by the involvement of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria, which has been coordinating efforts to try and compel U.S. troops to withdraw.
Both the U.S. and Russia have been conducting airstrikes in Syria, targeting militias and groups opposed to the other, necessitating the implementation of deconfliction mechanisms to avoid direct confrontations between the forces of the two nuclear-armed powers stationed in the country.
Past incidents have highlighted the potential risks in the absence of proper communication and coordination between the two forces.
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