Damascus (GPA) – Earlier this week the world got its first glimpse of post-Daesh US operations in Syria when US jets fired warning flares at Russian pilots.
According to sources within the US, the interception of several Russia SU-25 Jets was caused by the Russian pilots crossing the Euphrates. The river has been serving as the line demarcating the “deconfliction zones” established by the US and Russia earlier this year.
According to Air Forces Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart the SU-25s “were promptly intercepted by two F-22A Raptors providing air cover for partner ground forces conducting operations to defeat ISIS.”
The Air Force says the encounter lasted “several minutes” but was ended after calls to Russian officials and after US jets carried out “multiple maneuvers to persuade the Su-25s to depart our de-conflicted airspace, including the release of chaff and flares in close proximity to the Russian aircraft.” Pickart also accused the Russian pilots of dangerous maneuvers during this encounter saying that “One Su-25 flew close enough to an F-22A that it had to aggressively maneuver to avoid a midair collision.”
According to a Pentagon spokesman there is “great concern” among members of the US coalition that they could “accidentally” shoot down Russian jets if encounters like this keep happening. While this may sound somewhat like a threat, the spokesman went on to reassure reporters that the coalition is “not here to fight the Russians and Syrians,” and that the “focus remains on defeating ISIS.” He then added that with “That said, if anyone threatens Coalition or friendly partner forces in the air or on the ground, we will defend them.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense, however, has a much different version of how events played out that raises questions about the US claims.
According to Russia, even the setting of the US story is wrong and that, rather than crossing the Euphrates, the Russian jets were actually escorting an aid convoy. The MoD is also contesting the claim that Russia planes crossed the Euphrates, saying the whole operation took place on the west side of the river near the village of Mayadin.
According to the MoD, the US fighter approached the Russian jets on the west side of the Euphrates which forced and SU-35 fighter jet to “rapidly approach” the air convoy and the jets escorting it.
While both of these stories may sound equally plausible, it’s key to remember that the US has fired on Russian and Syrian forces in this region before. This occurred most recently in November when Russian jets were en route to bomb a Daesh command center when they were intercepted by a US F-22, which was warded off by an SU-35.
The area near the Euphrates is also the region in which the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been fighting Daesh. While most of the SDF and SAA operations have avoided each other there has been a series of incidents involving US hostility to the legitimate forces in Syria. With the threat of Daesh almost gone in this region, where the SDF now controls key territory like the city of Raqqa, it remains to be seen how this US-approved breach of Syria’s sovereignty will shake out.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.