After Sunday’s shoot-down of a Syrian war plane over the Raqqa countryside, hostilities are flaring between the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, complete with an exchange of threats.
“Any aircraft, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected in the operation areas west of the Euphrates River by the Russian air forces will be followed by Russian ground-based air defense and air defense aircraft as air targets,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement addressing the incident on Sunday.
In prior weeks the Russians expressed tacit approval for anti-ISIS operations carried out by the U.S.-led coalition, but the willingness for cooperation diminishes by the day.
In another statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense also said it would halt all interactions with the United States under an agreement meant to prevent clashes between Russian and American forces.
“The Ministry of defense of the Russian Federation, since 19 June, has ceased to interact with the American side within the framework of the memorandum on the prevention of incidents and aviation security during operations in Syria and calls for a thorough investigation by the American command” into the June 19 shoot-down incident.
American officials have responded to the Russians.
“We are aware of the Russian statements,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, on Monday. “We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened,” Davis added.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said Russia’s statement will have no impact on operations in Syria, where the U.S. and U.K. train fighters to take on the Islamic State. Earlier this month, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an operation to liberate the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital city.
“Coalition aircraft continue to conduct operations throughout Syria, targeting ISIS forces and providing air support for coalition partner forces on the ground,” said Col. Ryan Dillon, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad.
Dillon also appeared to suggest that American aircraft will avoid the areas of Syrian territory where Russia said it would treat U.S. planes as targets.
“As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrews given known threats in the battlespace,” the spokesman said.
The Russians also reportedly shut down the “deconfliction line” with the United States, a direct means of communications between the two countries established in September 2015, soon after Russia began direct military involvement in the war, to avoid conflict over Syrian skies as the U.S. and Russia carry out bombing missions.
Contrary to claims from American officials, the Russian Ministry of Defense said the U.S. failed to use the deconfliction line before firing on the Syrian fighter jet on Sunday.
“Russian Aerospace Forces’ jets were conducting operations in Syrian airspace [at the time of the shoot-down],” the Ministry said. “However, the command of the coalition forces didn’t use the existing channel between the air command of the Qatari airbase al Udeid and the [Russian] Hmeymim airbase to avoid incidents over Syria.”
“We consider such actions of the US command as an intentional violation of its obligations in the framework of the memo on avoiding incidents and the safety of aviation flights during operations in Syria signed on October 20, 2015,” the statement continued.
Both U.S. spokesmen, Capt. Davis and Col. Dillon, said the deconfliction line is still the best means to avoid future clashes over Syria.
“The coalition is always available to de-conflict with the Russians to ensure the safety of coalition aircrews and operations,” Davis said. “The de-confliction line has proven effective at mitigating strategic miscalculations and de-escalating tense situations.”
“We used the de-confliction line yesterday and remain open to using it. It has proven its worth in the past to tap down tensions,” Dillon said, seeming to suggest the line is still open.
Prior to the episode on Sunday, the United States had struck forces allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at least three times in the last four weeks. With every new incident, the situation grows more tense.
Since 2011, Assad has fought a civil war with an Islamist-dominated rebel opposition. Russia, Iran and various militias fight on behalf of Assad, while the U.S. has backed anti-Assad rebels on and off. The U.S.-backed rebels currently target ISIS-held areas of Syria, however it isn’t clear if they intend to turn on Assad once the Islamic group is ousted from its urban centers of power.
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