The reason Russia wants us out of Syria is the reason we should stay

Over the weekend, a U.S. fighter jet downed a Syrian warplane after Bashir al-Assad’s troops attacked positions of U.S. backed forces fighting against ISIS. The confrontation took place near the one-time ISIS stronghold of Tabqa, not too far from Raqqa.

Like the recent U.S. attack on a pro-Assad convoy in Southeastern Iraq, the downing of the Syrian jet should not be viewed as intervention intended to topple Assad, Rather, it should be seen as protecting assets in the fight against ISIS and, I hope, as promoting our interests in a post-ISIS Syria.

As I discussed here, the attack on the convoy occurred in a region of great strategic importance. It’s an area over which Iran hopes to establish strategic control, thereby creating a corridor from Lebanon and Syria through Baghdad to Tehran.

The area where we downed the Syrian fighter jet is also strategically important. At stake, says the Washington Post, is Syria’s oil producing area to the south of Raqqa.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters — a coalition dominated by Kurdish forces but also including Arab troops — are a major player in this area. They are making their way through the outskirts of Raqqa, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. Thus, they are important now and figure to be at least as important after Raqqa finally falls.

We did absolutely the right thing when we shot down the Syrian plane that threatened our allies.

The significance of our action is underscored by the Russian reaction. Yesterday, Russia condemned the downing of the Syrian jet as a “flagrant violation of international law.” It threatened to treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they operate in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River.

The Russians aren’t just trying to save face. As the Washington Post suggests, Putin intends to help Assad and Iran dominate post-ISIS Syria. That means intimidating the U.S. into inaction while they crush opposition forces.

The recipe worked when the U.S. president was Obama and the stakes were keeping Assad in power. Apparently, Russia thinks it will work now that the U.S. president is Trump and the stakes are controlling every strategically important part of Syria.

President Trump should not let himself be intimidated. He should not let Vladimir Putin tell him where the U.S. can and cannot fly. He should not let Putin, on behalf of his friends in Iran, shut the U.S. out of the end-game against ISIS and the post-ISIS jockeying for control.

Trump may decide he doesn’t want to commit U.S. ground forces to that struggle. However, he certainly should be willing to protect through air power the ground forces friendly to our interests.

The decision on ground troops can be deferred. The plans for how to retaliate if Russia shoots at our aircraft cannot be.

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