Russia in threat to hit US jets in Syria

US-led coalition planes operating west of the Euphrates will be targets, Moscow says after Syrian jet downed on Sunday.

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BEIRUT // Russia said on Monday it would treat aircraft belonging to the US-led anti-ISIL coalition as targets if they operated west of the Euphrates river in Syria.

The warning came after a US warplane shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter jet in eastern Syria on Sunday.

The United States said the jet had bombed a town held by its allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and that pro-government forces had launched a ground assault on the town, wounding a number of fighters.

Russia and the Syrian government said the Su-22 was launching strikes against ISIL.

Moscow called the shooting down of the plane an “act of aggression” that benefited terrorists. Damascus said the attack “stresses coordination between the US and ISIL”.

Russia’s ministry of defence said on Monday that a communication channel established to prevent clashes between US and Russian jets in Syria was to be shut down, state-run Tass news agency reported.

While the US and Russia do not see eye to eye on Syria and have backed opposing sides over the course of the war, they have so far escaped direct conflict despite both having a significant military role in the country. At times, US president Donald Trump suggested that US forces could work with Russia against ISIL in Syria.

Such cooperation did not materialise, but Moscow and Washington kept communications open and the US has been careful to avoid Russian forces in the country.

When the US launched a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in April as punishment for a sarin gas attack on a rebel-held town blamed on the Syrian regime, Washington gave Moscow warning.

Sunday was the first time the US has shot down a Syrian government plane, but the incident came after a series of escalating hostile interactions with pro-government forces.

On three occasions in recent weeks, coalition aircraft have bombed pro-government forces who got too close to US forces and their allies in eastern Syria. Those attacks led Hizbollah, which is also active in Syria, to threaten US troops.

Moscow’s threats to Washington came as Iran deepened its role in Syria, raising tensions in the broader region.

As the front lines of the Kurdish-dominated SDF and pro-government groups collide in eastern Syria, the US has become increasingly at risk of a direct conflict with the Syrian government, Iran-allied fighters and now Russia. All are situations that Washington hoped to avoid in its intervention against ISIL in Syria.

On Sunday, Iran launched ballistic missiles into another country for the first time in three decades, striking ISIL targets in eastern Syria in retaliation for a June 7 attack by the extremist group in Tehran.

But Sunday’s strikes were not just retaliation for ISIL’s first attack in Iran. They also appeared to be a show of force and a reminder to Iran’s enemies in the region that they are within range of Tehran’s arsenal.

Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the strikes sent a message that “the world’s most independent country would respond decisively to ill-wishers, terrorists and its enemies wherever they are”, according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

He said that the strikes were but a “small sample” of Iran’s defence capabilities.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Barham Qassemi also portrayed Sunday night’s strike as a show of force.

“The missile attack on the positions and bases of Takfiri terrorists in Deir Ezzour was only a small slap and just a warning to awaken those who could not or still cannot realise the realities in the region and their limits,” he said.

The six missiles were launched from Iran’s western Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces and struck targets between 650 and 700 kilometres away in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.

Iranian officials said the strikes were coordinated with the Syrian government and that the missiles flew over Iraq. Tehran also said the strikes included Iran-made Zulfiqar missiles, a short-range ballistic missile with a range of about 700km.

The UAE and much of Saudi Arabia are within range of the missiles used in Sunday’s strikes.

Iran also has missiles with a range of up to 2,000km, more than enough to strike Israel. US forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as the chief American air bases in the region – in Qatar and southern Turkey – are also well within range of Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles.

The Saudi and UAE-led campaign to isolate Qatar, as well as the wars in Syria and Yemen, have only escalated tensions over Iran in the region.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE accuse Qatar of colluding with Iran and oppose Tehran-backed groups in Syria and Yemen. Iran was quick to blame Saudi Arabia for the June 7 ISIL attack in its capital.

Preparing for potential aggression from Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf countries, have taken steps to mitigate the threat of Iranian missiles in recent years. The UAE has invested in the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, regarded as the most effective counter to short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Saudi Arabia is buying the same system.

* With additional reporting from Associated Press​ and Reuters