Escalating Tensions: Russian Fighter Jets Target US Drone in Syrian Airspace
In a series of provocative actions that have heightened tensions between Russia and the United States, the White House reported on Wednesday that a Russian fighter jet fired flares and hit a US drone in Syrian airspace. This incident marked the sixth such encounter this month and the second within 24 hours, where Russian warplanes came dangerously close to American manned and unmanned aircraft, posing risks to crews and planes, and raising concerns about the potential US response.
According to two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, the strike damaged the MQ-9 Reaper drone. While the White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed the reports, she expressed her dismay over Russia's actions, stating that a second Russian fighter aircraft had dangerously approached their drone on a mission to counter Islamic State militants in Syria. Jean-Pierre emphasized that Russia's "close approach to and deployment of flares over U.S. drones during a routine mission" blatantly violates international norms.
In the past two days, Russian warplanes have fired flares at US MQ-9 Reaper drones, leading to damage to the drone's propeller on Tuesday and a direct hit on Wednesday. Previous incidents have seen Russian jets intercepting US planes at dangerously close distances, including a highly concerning case where a manned aircraft put the lives of four American crew members at risk.
Rear Adm. Oleg Gurinov, the head of the Russian military's Reconciliation Center in Syria, blamed the US for the latest incident. Gurinov asserted that a US drone flew dangerously close to a pair of Russian warplanes in Syrian skies early Wednesday, prompting the Russian Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft's onboard systems to trigger the automatic release of flares as a defensive measure. He accused the US of failing to undergo deconfliction procedures for the involved drone and labeled it as "entirely provocative." Gurinov defended the Russian pilots' professionalism, stating that they took timely measures to avoid a collision with the drone.
Despite the established deconfliction phone line, which allows US and Russian military commanders to communicate and prevent unintended clashes in Syria, tensions remain high. It is reported that there are frequent interactions between the commanders, with occasional heated exchanges over ongoing operations.
Experts believe that Russia's aggressive actions may be in support of Iran's goal of pushing US forces out of Syria. A senior US defense official suggests that Iran seeks easier access to supply lethal aid to Lebanese Hezbollah and to pose a threat to Israel, and Russia, relying on Iran's support for its operations in Ukraine, appears to be collaborating with Iranian Quds force leaders in Syria to exert pressure on the US and potentially force them to withdraw from the region.
Amidst these ongoing intercepts, questions arise regarding the US response and the potential for a larger confrontation. Observers note that Russia seems to avoid a direct, open conflict but rather seeks to provoke responses through actions like targeting US drones.
The situation in Syria remains complex as both the US and Russia conduct missions there. While Russia supports the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the US collaborates with the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in operations against IS extremists. However, it should be noted that the Syrian Democratic Forces are also involved in a civil war with the Assad regime, adding further complexity to the region's dynamics.