Will US and Russian Ships Tangle Off the Syrian Coast?

The guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan (DDG 72), which is currently off the coast of Syria.

Now that it looks like any potential US / French strike against the Syrian regime will be postponed until after Congress has its say the week of Sept. 9, the already crowded sea lanes in the eastern Mediterranean are likely to stay that way for awhile.

There are already five US guided missile destroyers and the USS San Antonio, an amphibious ship with several hundred U.S. Marines aboard plying the waters off the Syrian coast, as well as three American nuclear submarines. France has also deployed two destroyers and a nuclear-powered submarine, and the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is ready for service after being refit in Toulon.

Reports in recent days have also claimed that Russia has two ships coming on station in the eastern Med., a deployment which Russian officials have characterized as being part of a routine rotation of forces in the region.

That’s at least ten warships transiting the sea lanes in a small area, each watching the other, watching the news, and watching each other watch each other.

While the US ships will have to remain at sea longer than expected, president Obama doesn’t appear to be worried, telling the nation on Saturday that “the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.”

Not everyone shares the president’s confidence. Analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote on Sunday that Obama “has suddenly transformed a rushed call for immediate action into a waiting game where it is not clear what he or the U.S. is waiting for, and where much of the action may come to border on tragicomedy.”

But what are the chances that with US, French, Russian, and presumably Syrian ships in close proximity, that someone miscalculates?

In the early 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Incidents At Sea Agreement that came as the result of a few close calls in the 1960s “when US and Soviet naval vessels and aircraft at sea basically got in one another’s way, and there was concern on both sides that a situation of that sort could inadvertently escalate” said Olga Oliker, Senior International Policy Analyst at The RAND Corporation.

Russia is now considered a signatory to that agreement, which is renewed every several years, Oliker added.

The agreement outlined some standard operating procedures for the rivals to follow while operating in close proximity “to minimize the danger of misunderstanding and actions that the other might see as threatening,” she said. And overall, “it has worked well.”

Due to the decades of the two nations sailing close to one another and years of mil-to-mil contacts, Oliker said that “I am thus not particularly concerned about the prospect of US and Russian vessels potentially operating in proximity, as long as everyone is aware of and following the long-standing, agreed, and well-known protocols.”

Still, could be a lively couple of weeks in the eastern Mediterranean.


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Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
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