US risks further battles as it steps deeper into Syrian quagmire – Washington Post
On Sunday, a U.S. fighter jet downed a Syrian warplane for the first time in the conflict. By Monday, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, had suspended a pact used to prevent crashes with the U.S.-led coalition in the skies over Syria and was threatening to target American jets.
Separately, Iran said that it had launched a barrage of missiles into Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. That assault marked Tehran’s first official strike against the extremist group in Syria, and it signposted the reach of its military might against foes across the region.
The incident followed a series of U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed forces advancing on partner forces in a strategically prized swath of land along the Iraqi border.
As the major powers on the opposite sides of Syria’s war intensify operations against the Islamic State, the risks of an accidental conflagration appear to be growing by the day.
The United States intervened in Syria to roll back Islamic State forces from a self-declared caliphate that once stretched deep into Iraq. But the American role has unsettled Assad’s allies, threatening confrontation with Russia and thrusting Iranian-backed militiamen in a race with a U.S.-favored rebel force to reach the Islamic State’s eastern strongholds.
The U.S. military confirmed late Sunday night that a U.S. F-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber.
The confrontation took place near the one-time Islamic State stronghold of Tabqa, hours after Syrian government forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. It was the first time that the American military has shot down a Syrian warplane during the six-year conflict.
On Monday, Russia condemned that strike as a “flagrant violation of international law,” and said its forces will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they are operating in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates River while Russian aviation is on combat missions.
Pavel Baev, who studies the Russian military at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, called the threat “mostly a bluff” but said that “calling it is risky because there are some nervous fingers on many buttons.”
In a statement Monday, the SDF warned that it would retaliate in the face of further aggression from pro-Assad forces, raising the possibility that the United States could be forced to deviate further from its stated policy in Syria, which only involves targeting Islamic State militants.
The U.S.-backed military alliance is making its way through the outskirts of the Islamic State’s one-time capital of Raqqa, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The alliance is dominated by Kurdish forces but also includes Arab forces.
If it again comes under attack by pro-Assad forces, Washington may be forced to defend the coalition at the risk of sparking a tinderbox of tensions with Iranian and Syrian troops in the northern province.
“The only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria — and there have been two specific incidents — have been in self-defense. And we’ve communicated that clearly,” said Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was suspending the communication channel through which such messages had been shared in order to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft operating over Syria.