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U.S. Moves Jets to Ease Syria Tensions Amid Russian Threat

U.S. Moves Jets to Ease Syria Tensions Amid Russian Threat
Source: Bloomberg
The American-led military coalition in Syria said it has repositioned aircraft after Russia threatened to treat its warplanes as targets in response to the U.S. downing of a Syrian government jet.

While air support to U.S.-backed fighters against Islamic State will go on, “as a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian Regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria,” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, said Monday. Coalition aircraft will continue operations against Islamic State targets “while ensuring the safety of our aircrew given known threats in the battlespace,” he said.

The U.S. moved to ease tensions after the Russian Defense Ministry threatened to “track any air targets, including the international coalition’s planes and drones, found to the west of the Euphrates river” following the downing of a Syrian Su-22 jet by a U.S. F-18 fighter on Sunday, the first such incident in the six-year war. The ministry called the attack “a cynical violation of Syria’s sovereignty” and said Russia was halting so-called deconfliction coordination with the U.S. aimed at averting air incidents.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in Washington that “we’re going to continue to keep an open line of communications with the Russians” and the “escalation of hostilities among the many factions that are operating in this region doesn’t help anybody.” But he added that “we will retain the right of self-defense of coalition forces aligned against” Islamic State.

The mulitfaceted escalation Spicer described was underscored on Sunday when Iran -- which like Russia backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- fired missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria in retaliation for deadly attacks by the jihadists in Tehran on June 7.

Read Why Trump’s Arming of Syrian Kurds Riles Turkey

The U.S. and Russia remain at odds over Syria even after Donald Trump entered the White House in January pledging to join with Vladimir Putin in fighting Islamic State. That promise has met resistance from Republicans and Democrats in Washington who want a harder line toward Russia over its alleged meddling in the U.S. election, support for Assad and intervention in Ukraine.

Russian airstrikes since 2015 helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor against rebels, some of them backed by the U.S. in its parallel campaign against Islamic State. Putin’s eager to get the U.S. involved in a Russian plan developed with Turkey and Iran to establish four security zones in Syria to enforce a faltering cease-fire.

‘Collective Self-Defense’

The Syrian government warplane was shot down as an act of “collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces” after it dropped bombs close to U.S.-backed fighters near the northern Syrian town of Tabqah, according to a statement by the U.S.-led coalition. “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat,” it said.

The Defense Ministry’s response doesn’t mean there’ll be war with the U.S., though it’s a “pretty serious” signal that Russia won’t accept acts of aggression against Syria, said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

U.S.-led aircraft in Syria may face “destruction” if they threaten the lives of Russian pilots, Viktor Ozerov, the defense committee’s chairman, said Monday, according to the Interfax news service. While Russia hopes it won’t have to take such action, “we won’t allow anyone to do what happened to the Syrian plane to our pilots,” he said.

‘Avoid Escalation’

“Lawmakers have no influence” on the Kremlin’s policy toward Syria and “all Russian actions, not rhetoric, show that Putin is trying now to avoid escalation with the West,” said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow.

Russia previously vowed to halt deconfliction coordination in April, after the U.S. bombed a Syrian airbase in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. But U.S.-Russian communications to avoid clashes in the skies over Syria resumed after only a few days.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington Monday that the U.S. and Russia continue to communicate and “we’ll work to restore that deconfliction channel in the next few hours.” The Syrian plane was shot down in self-defense after its pilot failed to heed warnings, he told the National Press Club.