For the first time since American forces went to war against ISIS in Syria, an F-18 fighter, flying off the USS George H.W. Bush, shot down a Syrian government plane, believed to be a Russian-made SU-22.
The Syrian air force had targeted coalition-backed troops fighting ISIS around their capital of Raqqa. The U.S. plane, under current rules of engagement, was allowed to engage the warplane and shoot it down to protect U.S.-backed troops.
In a statement, the coalition headquarters in Iraq said that a F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 that had dropped bombs near positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The statement said coalition aircraft had “conducted a show of force” to turn back an attack by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces on the SDF in the town of Ja’Din, south of Tabqah.
The coalition said the shootdown took place “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”
The statement said “a number of SDF fighters” were wounded in the regime’s attack, but did not specify further. The coalition also said that Russian officers had been contacted on a special “de-confliction” hotline in an effort to halt the assault.
“The Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” its statement said. “The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat.”
The statement went on to call for all parties in Syria’s complex and bloody six-year-long civil war to “focus their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security.”
A U.S. defense official told Fox News that the Super Hornet that shot down the Syrian jet was based on board the USS George H.W. Bush, which is currently operating in the Mediterranean Sea. The official did not say which weapon was used to shoot down the Syrian plane.
U.S. forces tangled earlier this month with Syria-allied aircraft in the region. On June 8, U.S. officials reported that a drone likely connected to Iranian-supported Hezbollah forces fired on U.S.-backed troops and was shot down by an American fighter jet. The incident took place in southern Syria near a base where the U.S.-led coalition was training Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group.
An Army spokesman at the Pentagon said at the time that the drone carried more weapons and was considered a direct threat, prompting the shootdown.
Just hours earlier, the U.S. had bombed Syrian government and allied troops inside a protected zone in that area, and marked a sharp escalation in the skirmishes between the coalition and those pro-Syrian government forces there.
This incident is not likely to expand the war, but it will finally — finally — put President Assad on notice that he can’t bomb U.S.-trained and -supplied forces fighting ISIS in Syria with impunity. The incident should have a salutatory effect on the morale of those forces now engaged in a very difficult and what is likely to be a prolonged assault on Raqqa.
But what if those jets are Russian the next time?
Russia has shown no hesitation in killing U.S.-backed militiamen in the past — along with their wives and children. President Obama did nothing while the Russian air force went about the business of crushing pro-U.S. fighters. The difference was, the fighters Russia targeted were fighting President Assad, not ISIS. Russia doesn’t want to engage U.S. air power and will probably refrain from doing Assad’s dirty work for him. But they won’t join the fight against ISIS in Raqqa either.
But Assad makes no distinction between ISIS and any other forces fighting in Syria except his allies. He refers to them as terrorists. After today, he will almost certainly be more likely to draw a distinction between U.S.-backed forces attacking ISIS and others who are fighting him.