Since September of 2015 the skies over Syria have been crowded with combat aircraft from multiple nations. Russia, Syria, and the nations of the US-led coalition fly sorties on a daily basis, often in close proximity to each other. The threat of an accident or inadvertent incident has been a serious possibility since then. The Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 Fencer in November, 2015 highlighted the dangers present in and around Syrian airspace. Deconfliction measures were taken between the US and Russia to minimize the possibility of a chance encounter between US and Russian warplanes, including a hotline that officials can use to inform the other side of air operations taking place in specific areas at certain times. Although there have been a handful of close calls, the deconfliction measures have largely been successful.
Unfortunately, the Syrian Air Force has been operating in willful ignorance of the rules. Yesterday, it paid the price when a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter after it dropped ordnance on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the vicinity of Tabqa, Syria. The US fighter acted within the active rules of engagement which include self-defense, and the defense of forces belonging to coalition partners. SDF fighters are considered coalition-partnered forces.
Russia has reacted angrily to the shootdown, considering it to be an act of aggression. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Defense Minister stated today that his country will now consider US planes to be threats when flying over certain regions of Syria. All US and coalition aircraft east of the Euphrates river will be actively targeted, according to Shoygu’s statement. In addition, all deconfliction efforts will be suspended.
If the Russians hold firm on these promises, the skies over Syria are about to become even more dangerous and the Syrian conflict is now on the doorstep of a major escalation. There is a very real danger of clashes between US and Russian warplanes happening in the coming days if things remain as they are right now.
It all boils down to how far Russia is willing to go in backing its Syrian allies. If Moscow concludes that Syria is worth a confrontation and potential war with the US, expect Russia to push the US even farther as the week unfolds.