A U.S. Navy fighter jet shot down a Syrian air force plane near the town of Tabqa in southern Syria on Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria announced.
The Soviet-made Su-22 attack jet had just bombed rebel fighters from the pro-U.S. Syrian Democratic Forces group occupying the town of Ja’din, south of Tabqa, when the American F/A-18E—presumably flying from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Red Sea—intercepted it.
The Su-22 “was immediately shot down,” the coalition stated. The F/A-18 pilot acted “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition partnered forces.”
It’s unclear whether the Syrian pilot survived. The shoot-down represented U.S. military’s first victory in air-to-air combat since the 1999 Kosovo conflict.
The Syrian regime claimed the Su-22 was attacking ISIS when the American jet interfered. “Our aircraft was downed at lunch time today near the [Syrian] city of Raqqa, when it was fulfilling its mission against Daesh,” the Syrian Defense Ministry told Sputnik, a Kremlin mouthpiece. “Daesh” is the derogatory Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The aerial bloodletting represents a major escalation of the air battle over Syria—one that could force a confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces, as each country flies top cover for opposing sides in the six-year-old Syrian civil war.
The swing-wing Su-22—one of the regime’s most powerful warplane types—reportedly bombed the SDF in Ja’din as part of a broader regime offensive against the pro-U.S. rebels advancing on the so-called Islamic State’s unofficial capital of Raqqa, 20 miles east of Tabqa. The coalition stated that a regime attack around 4:30 p.m., local time, on Sunday wounded several SDF fighters and briefly pushed the rebel group from Ja’din.
Coalition warplanes came to the SDF’s rescue, flying loud and low in a so-called show of force that convinced the regime troops to halt their advance, the coalition reported. At that point, the coalition headquarters “contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established ‘de-confliction’ line to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing.”
Officially, the SDF and its coalition backers are solely focused on defeating ISIS—a goal the coalition shares with the Syrian regime and its own Russian backers. But as the pro-U.S. rebels gain ground in southern Syria, they’ve increasingly clashed with Syrian forces fighting both to defeat ISIS and preserve the Syrian regime.
The de-confliction hotline, which the Pentagon and the Kremlin jointly established following Russia’s late-2015 decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war, is supposed to help American and Russian plan their operations around each other and thus avoid a direct confrontation.
On Sunday, the hotline apparently failed. At 6:43 p.m., local time, the Syrian Su-22 attacked—and, in return, the American F/A-18 opened fire. “The coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the coalition stated. It “does not seek to fight Syrian regime [or] Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them.”
Russia has deployed dozens of its own warplanes to Syria. They fly bombing raids targeting ISIS and rebel forces and also maintain defensive air patrols keeping close tabs on U.S. and allied warplanes conducting their own anti-ISIS attacks.
In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 attack plane that Turkey claimed had strayed over the Syrian border into Turkish airspace. One of the two Russian crew died. A Russian commando was killed during the rescue operation that retrieved the surviving crewman from rebel territory.
So far, the United States and Russia have managed to avoid a violent confrontation in the air over Syria. But under President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.S. forces have not hesitated to strike regime forces that interfere with the coalition operations or grossly target civilians.
On April 7, U.S. warships fired 59 cruise missiles at the regime’s Sharyat airfield after Su-22s from the airfield dropped canisters of lethal gas on civilians in the town of Khan Sheykhoun, killing nearly 100 people. The missile strike destroyed as many as four of Damscus’ roughly two dozen Su-22s on the ground. Some of the surviving Su-22 pilots fled with their planes to air bases that are better protected by Russian patrols.
Two months later, on June 8, a U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter shot down one of the regime’s Iranian-made armed drones after the drone attacked coalition advisers working alongside rebel forces in southern Syria. It was the first time a U.S. warplane had ever battled an armed enemy drone in the air.
The Syrian Defense Ministry told Sputnik that the Americans’ shoot-down of the regime Su-22 was “aimed at halting the Syrian army and its allies in the fight against terrorism.”
The coalition stated that it “will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat.”
Russia has not yet officially responded to the shoot-down.