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Explainer: Could the US-Russia standoff in Syria end in violent conflict?

Syria’s war is entering a vital phase.

Source: Al Jazeera English/YouTube

TENSIONS BETWEEN US and Russian forces operating in Syria have increased in the past week leading to concerns over a serious escalation in the six-year-old conflict.

The UN has called recent events “very dangerous” and has restated the importance of peace talks taking place next month.

What’s more, the increased tensions are coming at a time when the so-called Islamic State is on the run in the country and its stronghold of Raqqa looks set to fall.

What has happened?

Last Sunday, a US jet shot down a warplane of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government. The US says the warplane was bombing US-backed local Syrian forces.

Russia, who backs the Syrian government, condemned the action and threatened that any US or coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates river risked being shot down.

“Any flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, discovered west of the Euphrates River will be tracked as aerial targets by Russia’s air defences on and above ground,” Russia’s defence ministry said.

AP Analysis Gulf on Edge A missile is fired from Iran towards Syria. Source: AP/PA Images

In response, the Pentagon said the US had taken “prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria” to ensure the safety of pilots.

Two days later, Russia said it was suspending a special hotline to communicate with the US-led coalition about operations in Syria, raising the risk of a military mishap.

The line was established in October 2015 after Russia entered Syria’s civil war to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.

Both sides agreed to open a regular communications channel after several instances in which Russian and US planes or drones had come close to each other, raising the nightmare prospect of a mid-air collision or some other dangerous encounter.

It’s feared such an encounter could escalate into a dangerous confrontation between Russia and the US.

Russia Islamic State Russian ammunition ready to be loaded onto a warplane in Syria. Source: Vadim Savitsky/PA

In response to Russia’s threat, Australia also temporarily suspended air operations in Syria during the week.

Why now? 

The conflict in Syria is entering a vital phase in which the Islamic State’s areas of control are dwindling and Assad’s forces are retaking cities that had been held by the opposition.

It means that both Russia and the US may be looking to assert their influence in the region should the conflict be moving towards a messy conclusion.

The likelihood of such an outcome was further underlined on Thursday when French President Emmanuel Macron stated that the departure of Assad was no longer seen as a priority.

Macron said the international community had made a “collective error” in thinking the conflict could be solved “only with military force”, adding:

My deep conviction is that we need a political and diplomatic roadmap.

What next?

The next round of UN-led peace talks on Syria start on 10 July in Geneva.

The aim will be to create such a roadmap on ending the six-year war but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged people to be realistic.

Guterres said that given the “complexity of the situation… I don’t want to create false expectations about immediate results” from the upcoming round of negotiations.

Instead, Guterres expressed concerns about the increased tensions between the US and Russia.

“Indeed I am concerned and I hope that this will not lead to any escalation of the conflict that is already as dramatic as it is,” Guterres told a news conference at UN headquarters.

United Nations - Secretary General United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Source: Bebeto Matthews/PA Images

“I strongly hope that there will be a de-escalation of the situation because these kinds of incidents can be very dangerous in a conflict situation in which there are so many actors and in which the situation is so complex on the ground,” said Guterres.

The United Nations is preparing to host in Geneva a new round of talks on ending the six-year war.

Guterres said that given the “complexity of the situation… I don’t want to create false expectations about immediate results” from the upcoming round of negotiations.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2017

Read: Russia warns it will ‘treat US planes as targets’ after jet shot down >

Read: A childhood shattered by ‘grown-up stuff’ – the diary of an eight-year-old girl who survived Aleppo >

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