WASHINGTON ― A U.S. Navy pilot shooting down a Syrian jet over the weekend has raised tensions to the point where Russia is threatening to attack American planes in the region while the White House insists on the right to defend itself.
“Making sure that people understand that, while we want to de-escalate the situation there, that we have to understand that we will always preserve the right of self-defense,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday.
The issue, though, is what constitutes “self-defense” in the complicated Syrian civil war that’s been overlain with U.S. efforts to destroy the self-described Islamic State terrorist group, which three years ago declared a “caliphate” in that country.
The Syrian military, controlled by dictator Bashar Assad and allied with Russia, attacked fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces on Sunday in Ja’Din, in the central part of the country. The U.S. responded by shooting down a Syrian Su-22 with an F/A-18E based on the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush.
Russia then announced it was shutting down a “de-confliction” communications channel set up in 2015 as a way to make sure the Russian and U.S. militaries, both operating in Syria, knew of each other’s flights to avoid accidentally attacking each other.
“US shot down Syrian AF plane alleging it was targeting ‘opposition’ not ISIS. Americans forget whose country they are in,” said a tweet posted Monday by the Russian embassy in London.
All of this makes for a dangerous situation, said Douglas Lute, a retired Army general and a U.S. ambassador to NATO under former President Barack Obama. “Tactical incidents and decisions can escalate quickly when there are no channels of de-confliction, no ways to mitigate risk in the common battle space on the ground and in the air over Syria,” he said.
The Department of Defense argues that the Syrian Democratic Forces are not trying to overthrow Assad, and are only fighting ISIS. What’s more, an attack on those troops is essentially an attack on U.S. forces partnered with them, according to the DOD.
At a Monday appearance at the National Press Club, Joint Chiefs chairman and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said the coming days would be instructive, as the United States and its allies stand ready to start an offensive against ISIS in Raqqa.
“The Russian Federation has indicated that their purpose in Syria, like ours, is to defeat ISIS. And we’ll see if that’s true here in the coming hours,” Dunford said.
He added that the United States is not interested in problems with Russia. “We’ll work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to re-establish de-confliction,” he said.
It was unclear by late Monday whether the communications channel was re-opened ― or whether it had ever been completely shut down. Russian officials said after the U.S. Tomahawk missile strikes against Syria in April that they had suspended the de-confliction channel, but it was revealed later the claim was not accurate.