Multiple developments related to Russia's military role in Syria mean that the years-long conflict could once again become front and center for Washington during 2020.
First, this week Russia and Syria conducted rare joint naval drills in the eastern Mediterranean at a moment Russian jets significantly increased airstrikes on jihadist-held Idlib province, reportedly conducting hundreds of missile strikes in the last five days, with regional reports saying Russian warships in the Mediterranean are firing sea-launched rockets as well.
A Syrian government assault on southern Idlib is being given air support through the major uptick in Russian air raids, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing as the combined force seeks to push back the al-Qaeda group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
“The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said tens of thousands of civilians have fled southern Idlib since Monday and headed north for safety, while thousands more were waiting for the violence to abate to leave,” France24 reports.
And the UN agency OCHA described that “Following the intensification of air strikes and shelling since 16 December in southern Idlib, tens of thousands of civilians are reportedly fleeing from Maaret al-Numan area in southern Idlib governorate to (the) north.”
HTS reportedly impeding the movement of civilians trying to flee Maarat al-Numan: pic.twitter.com/BPqDlsSefr— Lindsey Snell (@LindseySnell) December 21, 2019
As for the simultaneous Russian-Syrian naval drills conducted this week, it's clearly meant to send a message to the West not to intervene in ongoing Idlib operations. As Newsweek described of the just concluded exercises:
In exercises involving some 2,000 personnel, 10 vessels and a number of aircraft as well, the Russia and Syrian armed forces signaled a new level of defense cooperation off the coast of the city of Tartus in the eastern Mediterranean. Maneuvers included counterterror operations, anti-drone warfare and deception, among other tactics.
Russian media published footage of what appeared to be relatively small-scale drills when compared to prior regional exercises Russia has held.
Meanwhile, over the past month there have been new warnings from Moscow that jihadist groups in Idlib are preparing a potential false 'chemical attack provocation' to draw in Washington intervention.
And contradicting speculation that Russian forces could be ready to begin drawing down from the region, this week Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister said Moscow will invest $500 million in the Syrian port of Tartus. According to regional reports:
Mr Borisov made the announcement on a two-day visit to Syria, during which he met with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Mr Borisov’s office said the trip would focus on “the operation of the port of Tartus, which was leased by Russia, and options for customs preferences to supply Syrian agricultural products to Russia from citrus, olive and olive oil.”
Russia, the world's largest wheat exporter, has stepped up grain supplies to support Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in recent years since Moscow's 2015 military intervention on his behalf in Syria's civil war.
All of this — and especially the stepped up military operations to wrest Idlib from anti-government terrorist groups — means 2020 could once again witness the US and Russia on the brink of war in Syria.
However, the determining factor could be the sensitive timing in the run-up to the US election. While the Trump administration's rhetoric on Idlib has been to repeatedly threaten Damascus and Moscow over the humanitarian fallout, the White House will likely want to avoid a major showdown which could be politically costly.
On the other hand, another 'limited' round of US strikes on Syria could be used by the administration for a bit of significant political distraction and to take the public eye off the continuing impeachment circus.