Russia has said it will target any plane from the US-led coalition flying west of the Euphrates river over Syria after the US military shot down a Syrian air force jet on Sunday.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had been given no warning by the US, and that as a consequence it was also suspending coordination over the “de-confliction zones” that were created to prevent in-the-air incidents involving US and Russian jets engaged in operations in Syria.
According to the Pentagon the Syrian jet downed on Sunday had dropped bombs near US partner forces involved in the fight to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State (Isis) control. It was the first such attack on a regime plane by the US since Syria’s devastating civil war began six years ago.
Early on Monday, in the first Russian response to the incident, the deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said: “This strike has to be seen as a continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of international law.
“What is this if not an act of aggression? It is, if you like, help to those terrorists that the US is fighting against, declaring they are carrying out an anti-terrorism policy.”
The Russian response increases the risk of an inadvertent air fight breaking out between US and Russian warplanes in the crowded skies above Syria.
The US military confirmed that a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet had shot down a Syrian SU-22 on Sunday. The US said the Syrian jet had dropped bombs near Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters who are aligned with the Americans in the fight against Isis. Damascus said its plane had been on anti-Isis mission.
Col John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, said there were no US forces in the “immediate vicinity” of the Syrian regime attack but that the SDF was under threat for more than two hours.
The growing threat of a direct confrontation between the US and Russia follows a decision by Donald Trump to grant his military chiefs untrammelled control of the US military strategy in Syria.
Tensions have also been bubbling between Washington and Moscow over their efforts to dislodge Isis from its Raqqa stronghold.
Russia, a staunch supporter of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has been pressing the US to make the removal of Isis a joint operation by land and air. However, discussions over Syria’s long-term political future appear to have ground to a halt, leaving the US military to operate in a political vacuum.
The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters working alongside western special forces, said that it would take action to defend itself from Syrian warplanes if attacks continued.
The Trump administration has promised to improve arms supplies to the SDF after it concluded that it was the most effective fighting force capable of freeing Raqqa from Isis.
In a sign of how complex the Syrian peace process has become, Russian-sponsored peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, are scheduled to resume on the same day – 10 July – as talks convened by the United Nations in Geneva.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced the date on Monday in the knowledge that it would coincide with the UN schedule. He also said that the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, would take part.
A spokesman for de Mistura said “the subject is currently being discussed”.