Even before launching the missile strike on the Syrian government-controlled Shayrat air base, the United States knew the risks to its anti-Islamic State campaign and its wider operations in the country would grow substantially. After all, U.S. aircraft fly within range of Syrian and Russian air defense systems every day, and U.S. forces are present on the ground in Syria, in some cases such as in Manbij, within proximity of Syrian loyalist troops.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. military and its allies are adopting a cautious stance in Syria while they assess the changed dynamics and monitor signs of any moves to retaliate over the Shayrat missile strike. The New York Times, for instance, reported April 8 that the U.S.-led coalition in Syria has sharply curtailed its air operations over Syria. Instead, it's relying on highly survivable aircraft such as the stealth F-22 for essential missions over the country. This caution has been further driven by the Russian withdrawal from the 2015 deconfliction agreement with the United States, which was designed to limit the potential for accidental encounters between U.S.-led coalition aircraft and Russian aircraft over Syria.
While coalition flight operations over Syria could quickly revert back to their normal pace as the United States assesses the operating environment, U.S.-led coalition forces will still have to remain at a heightened state of alert for the foreseeable future. Worries include not only an accidental collision with Russian forces or retaliation ordered by the Syrian high command in Damascus, but also the highly fragmented state of the Syrian military after more than six years of war. A local officer or powerful Syrian field commander, going rogue, could conceivably elect to open fire on U.S. aircraft independent of the Syrian loyalist chain of command. There have already been unconfirmed reports of loyalist-manned anti-aircraft gunfire directed at U.S. spy drones flying over the province of al-Hasaka in northeastern Syria. Before the April 7 strike, Syrian forces generally gave a wide berth to U.S. anti-Islamic State operations, in a sort of unofficial acceptance.
Situations like these can rapidly escalate in a conflict such as Syria, with the United States increasingly involved in a civil war that has already drawn in so many nations.