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Russia condemns US downing of Syrian warplane

Community Admin 9 Mon at 2:20 PM
Russia condemns US downing of Syrian warplane
  • Action helps terrorists, Russian official says
  • US says plane dropped bombs near SDF forces

Moscow (CNN)A day after a US Navy fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane, Russia says it has stopped using a key communication channel set up to avoid conflict between US and Russian forces in Syria.

Amping up rhetoric against US actions in the area, Russia said Monday it will consider aircraft west of the Euphrates River "air targets" and track them by air and on land.

The Defense Ministry explained the move by saying it will stop abiding by its military cooperation agreement with the US in Syria.

And a top Russian official called the US downing of the Syrian plane an act of aggression that assists terrorists.

The US-led coalition said it is taking "prudent measures" in response.

In Washington, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said communication between Russia and the US remains open.

Dunford said the US is working "diplomatically and militarily to reestablish a "de-confliction" channel in the next few hours.

"I am also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves," Dunford added. "The worst thing any of us can do right now is to address this thing with hyperbole."

This is not the first time that Russia has said the "de-confliction" channel has been suspended. In April, after the US missile strike on a Syrian airbase, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia would suspend the 2015 agreement aimed at minimizing risks of in-flight incidents.

US downing of plane an "act of aggression"

The US military said that it shot down a warplane that had dropped bombs near Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) fighters. SDF forces are backed by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.

It's the first time the US has shot down a Syrian aircraft since it began fighting ISIS in the country in 2014.

"This strike can be regarded as another act of defiance of international law by the United States," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday, according to Russia's state-run news agency Tass. "What was it, if not an act of aggression? It was also an act of assistance to those terrorists whom the United States is ostensibly fighting against."

"Considered air targets," Russia says

The Russian Ministry of Defense called the downing of the plane "a cynical violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic" and "military aggression." It also demanded an investigation by US command.

Further, the ministry's statement declares that west of the Euphrates River, Russian aircraft will escort any aircraft and unmanned vehicles.

"From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any air-born objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets," the statement reads.

The US military is prohibited by law from coordinating directly with the Russian military, but given the increased pace and scale of military operations in Syria, the US and Russia have sought ways to ensure that their respective personnel are not targeted by mistake, setting up a series of so-called "de-confliction zones" that delineate areas of operation for the coalition and the Russian forces.

Potential threat escalates

Coalition forces released a response within hours of the Kremlin statements.

"As a result of recent encounters involving pro Syrian regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrews given known threats in the battle space," coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon tells CNN.

"We are continuing to conduct operations throughout Syria targeting ISIS forces and providing air support for coalition forces and our partner forces on the ground," Dillon says. "We as a coalition are always ready to deconflict."

A defense official tells CNN the belief is the potential threat has escalated given recent encounters with pro-regime forces near At Tanf, as well as the downing of the Syrian aircraft.

Analysts see positioning

With ISIS now significantly weakened, analysts believe all all parties in Syria are maneuvering to consolidate their positions for an eventual settlement of the conflict.

Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa Editor for Jane's Defence Weekly, says the players in Syria are now operating with "half an eye on the post-Islamic State situation," and looking to control as much territory as possible.

Russia could work to de-escalate the situation, but Moscow is "looking increasingly less like an honest mediator between the sides," he says. "We don't know until we see how it plays out in reality, but it is definitely Russia making a pretty strong statement in favor of the Assad government."

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the events of Sunday and Monday are a significant escalation, which could result in a "collision" between the two sides. In order to defuse the situation, he said, the US needs to begin to see Russia as a more equal partner in determining the future of Syria.

"It is time for diplomacy," he said.

Strike followed attack on SDF-controlled area

The Syrian aircraft was destroyed, the Russian ministry said. The pilot of the Syrian Air Force self-ejected over the area controlled by ISIS, and his fate is unknown, the ministry said.

The strike came a little more than two hours after forces allied with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad attacked the north-central Syria town of Ja'Din, which was controlled by the SDF.

A number of SDF forces were wounded in the attack, the statement from the Combined Joint Task Force said. The attack drove the SDF from Ja'Din, which is west of Raqqa, the coalition statement said.

CNN's Mary Ilyushina, Barbara Starr, Jill Dougherty and Emma Burrows contributed to this report.