TSI Quick Summary – Developments Surrounding US Downing of Syrian Jet
On Sunday 18 June, the US military shot a Syrian Air Force jet out of the sky to the south of Raqqa city. This air-to-air engagement between the US and Syria is a serious escalation, and comes coming amidst rapidly increasing tensions between the US and the Assad Coalition backers – Russia & Iran – in eastern Syria. Here is a brief overview of the events surrounding the 18 June shoot down, and what they all mean:
In the past month, the US military has shown a new willingness to use military force to defend local Syrian and Kurdish forces that it is backing in the anti-ISIS fight from attacks by pro-government forces. This has been evidenced by a handful of incidents in which US aircraft have targeted Iran-backed pro-government militias approaching the US-Coalition garrison near al-Tanf in southeastern Syria, and one incident in which the US shot down an unmanned Iranian drone.
On Sunday, 18 June 2017, US-backed SDF forces came under attack by Syrian military forces around the town of Ja’din, south of Raqqa, where the front lines have converged in the scramble to reclaim land from ISIS. After the SDF called for support against the Syrian military and the US attempted to contact Russia via the “de-confliction channel,” a US F/A 18-E Super Hornet shot down the Syrian government SU-22 fighter jet that continued to threaten the US-backed SDF forces. The shoot down occurred approximately two hours after the initial government attack on the SDF began.
Note: While the general outline of the incident is firm, there are some details that appear to be in dispute. The official US Coalition statement on the incident says that the Syrian jet dropped bombs near the SDF fighters. A few other sources suggest that the Syrian jet was above the SDF forces and had not necessarily dropped any munitions when it was shot down, including the Hasaka-based Kurdish Hawar News site, and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Whether or not the Syrian aircraft had deployed its munitions prior to being shot down, it seems credible that it was in the area to support Syrian military ground forces fighting against the SDF. Pro-government forces have been known to attack Syrian opposition forces after they take territory from ISIS, most recently in the Badiya region in southern Syria. There is no corroborating evidence to support the pro-government claim that its SU-22 was actually on a combat mission against ISIS.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) released a statement following the incident claiming that the US shot down the Syrian jet while it was conducting an offensive against ISIS, and accusing the US of failing to use the “de-confliction channel” to prevent a possible run-in with Russian aircraft which were also operating in the area. The MOD statement said that Russia had cut off participation in the de-confliction channel with the US as a result of the incident and was demanding an investigation. Most notably, the MOD statement said that: “In the combat mission zones of the Russian aviation in the air space of Syria, all kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.” This not-so-veiled threat opens the path of escalation to a possible direct confrontation between the US and Russia in Syria.
On Monday, US defense officials said that the US had taken “prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria” to avoid such a confrontation, but also said that US-Coalition anti-ISIS operations will continue and “we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened.”
The threat of direct confrontation between the US and Russia/Iran in Syria is higher than ever before. During a 13 June Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis acknowledged that there were Russian forces in the Badiya region near the US base at al-Tanf, and said that he “did not anticipate that the Russians would move there.” The presence of Russians in this area of tension between the US and pro-government forces adds concern that this proxy war could quickly turn into a direct confrontation. Also last week it was reported that the US had expanded its presence to a second outpost in the desert, and moved a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) into southern Syria near al-Tanf, presumably in anticipation of further confrontation with the pro-government forces massing nearby.
On Sunday – the same day that the US shot down Assad’s jet – the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced that it launched a series of ballistic missiles directly from Iran into Syria, reportedly targeting ISIS in Deir Ezzor. Iran claimed that the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s terrorist attack in Tehran. While Iranian IRGC forces have been on the ground in Syria for years, and Iran arms and trains a significant portion of the Assad Coalition forces – including foreign and domestic pro-government militias – this is the first time Iran has launched an attack into Syria from Iran. Though targeting ISIS, these strikes send a clear, threatening message to the US and its anti-ISIS Coalition partners as the battle moves eastwards towards Deir Ezzor.