Russia Warns of Escalation After a USN F/A-18E Shoots Down Syrian Su-22

Francisco Duarte

Last Sunday, around 6:43 p.m., local time, a Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter from the Syrian Arab Air Force was shot down by a Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet operating from the US aircraft carrier USS George Bush (CVN-77). The American aircraft is part of the detachment involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, the air campaign against the so-called Islamic State. According to both American and Russian sources, units from the Syrian Arab Army were advancing towards the town of Ja'Din, south of Tabqah, engaging the Syrian Democratic Forces that had previously taken the town. The SDF are directly supported by the United States, through the use of Special Forces teams on the ground, and several types of air assets operating from carriers in the Mediterranean and airbases spread across the Middle East. During this incident, the Syrian Arab Army, loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Hassad, was targeted by of a show of force from American jets. A show of force is when combat aircraft perform a low-level flight over enemy troops to dissuade them from taking further actions, but the governmental forces kept pressing on. Sources mentioned by the website The Aviationist also state that Russian assets were called in to try to disarm the situation but were ineffective in doing so, and the Su-22 came into the scene to provide close air support for the governmental troops. It was then shot down by the American jet. The pilot has reportedly bailed out over Islamic State-held territory, and his whereabouts are unknown at present.

The situation in Syria has been falling into a downward spiral of chaos and misery ever since the start of the civil war back in 2011, in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. The regime of Bashar al-Assad reacted by cracking down on the protesters, which responded in kind. Since then the situation kept escalating, drawing in all the major powers in the region in one way or the other. Backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanon came to the aid of al-Assad, while for the most part, the Western powers, led by the US, have been supporting the moderate rebels, including the SDF and the Kurds. Turkey has also taken part in the fighting, and Israel and Jordan have been engaged in sporadic skirmishes along their borders with Syria.

The civil war also sparked two other worrisome situations. First, the violence and destruction of the country led millions to escape to others nations as refugees, who have filled camps and traveled across the Mediterranean in ramshackle boats to reach Europe. Moreover, the power voids left in the wake of the violence allowed the rise of extremist factions, of which the most conspicuous is the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Given the situation, both the Americans and the Russians have stated repeatedly that their presence in Syria is mostly related to anti-terrorism operations, and have maintained separate air campaigns over the country. Nevertheless, the official stance of the former American President, Barack Obama, was that the future of Syria should not include al-Hassad, while Russia has decided to support him, defending that he remains the legal ruler of the country. This different postures have kept both nations at odds with each other, and large quantities of military equipment, including anti-air missile platforms, combat aircraft, and naval vessels, were deployed to the region while the fighting between the different factions involved in the civil war continues. Even so, efforts were made to avoid direct confrontations between Washington DC and Moscow, including a Memorandum of non-aggression to avoid incidents between aircraft from both nations.

Even so, incidents did happen. In November of 2015, a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft was shot down by Turkish F-16s, sparking grave concern among Western and Eastern authorities, although there was a consequent deescalation of the whole situation. More recently, on June 8, an American F-15E strike aircraft shot down an Iranian-made drone when it attacked US-led local fighters from the Maghawir al-Thawra group. The downing of the Su-22, though, represents the first time a US jet destroys another manned aircraft in air combat since the Kosovo War in 1999. This is seen as a serious escalation of the current situation in Syria.

Just this morning, the Russian Ministry of Defense has issued a statement in which this Sunday's actions were denounced as a failure to follow the Memorandum on non-aggression, and that the attack against the Su-22 was an act of aggression against a sovereign nation and a member of the UN. Thus, Moscow declared it would retract from the Memorandum and treat any aircraft of the Western Coalition as a potential target.

While the incidents keep mounting, so do the concerns regarding the future of Syria.

[Featured Image by Jon Gambrell/AP Images]