US Air Force has an itchy finger. Five months ago it shot down a Syrian jet smack dab in the middle of Syria because it had gotten “too close” to US-backed Kurdish fighters and embedded US special forces troops on the ground (never mind the fact ISIS was in the vicinity as well).
Perhaps because it rarely deals with an enemy that can fire back the US Air Force is the most gung-ho of all the branches of the Pentagon.
In September 2016 it almost certainly deliberately bombed the Syrian army units defending the then besieged city of Deir Ezzor against ISIS, killing around one hundred in a sustained attack which lasted over an hour.
Though the US claimed the bombing was an error the best journalism on the incident suggested it was a deliberate ploy by the US Air Force command in Qatar to sabotage the Kerry-Lavrov deal for Syria that had been worked out between Washington and Moscow just days before.
Now I fear we are in a situation where there is increased likelihood the trigger-happy US Air Force will target a Russian jet over Syria. Consider this; unnamed US officials have made it a point to tell CNN that US jets in Syria are being “subjected to unsafe flying practices by Russian aircraft”. This comes on the heels of a report last week that US forces are shocked by Russia’s “increasingly alarming behavior” over Syria:
As Islamic State militants lose ground in Iraq and Syria, U.S. fighter pilots are seeing increasingly alarming behavior from Russian aircraft flying over the battlespace.
Lt. Col. “Ox,” a U.S. Air ForceRaptor pilot and commander of the 95th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron assigned to Al Dhafra air base, UAE, said his pilots see unexpected, potentially threatening movement from Russian fighters flying over Iraq and Syria with growing regularity.
In this earlier report Americans go on to explain that Russians are not actually behaving aggressively towards the US aircraft at all, but that instead their mere proximity to US grounds is “threatening”:
The pilots have had numerous close calls in the past few weeks, with Russian aircraft frequently flying within weapons range of coalition ground troops, Ox said.
The Russians fighters—primarily Sukhoi Su-30s, Su-35s, Su-27 Flankers and Su-17 Fitters—have not made moves to attack U.S. or coalition forces, but their proximity to the ground troops is threatening, said Ox, who requested partial anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.
Of course, the truth is that with ISIS almost completely broken the US-Kurdish and Russian-Syrian lines in eastern Syria have almost converged. Where before in most places a sea of ISIS-held territory separated the two forces, now Russian aircraft supporting the Syrian troops on the ground against ISIS necessarily find themselves close to US-Kurdish forces which are squeezing ISIS from another direction.
In other words the Americans are playing dumb here. Quite the contrary to American claims of Russians flying becoming “increasingly alarming” the greater proximity to US-augmented forces is the natural outcome of the two forces making contact as ISIS recedes.
The CNN report on alleged Russian “unsafe flying practices” concludes by saying that US wants to have “a minimum 3,000 feet separation from other aircraft vertically, horizontally and laterally”. In other words, Russians need to show no actual aggressive intent. Just coming within a kilometer of a US aircraft, which are violating Syria’s airspace by being there in the first place, is deemed “unsafe” for the Americans.
Perhaps the US Air Force is frustrated that now it is Russian aircraft which are flying close to US ground assets. Had it been Syrians alone they may have been shot down by now just like the Syrian Su-17 that was brought down in June (video above). Or perhaps the Americans are extra worried for their safety because they know they have no legal backing to be in Syria’s skies in the first place.
In any case, there is no doubt that US Air Force is more powerful than its Russian counterpart, and that it has more of its assets in the Middle East. Perhaps it is itching to show the Russians who is boss? Whichever is the case, should a Russian plane be brought down over Syria the US Air Force has already laid the media groundwork to present it as culmination of Russia’s “increasingly alarming behavior”.
Meanwhile America’s F-22s will keep tail Russian aircraft over eastern Syria ready to shoot “at the slightest hint of a confrontation”:
Potentially threatening aircraft are often close enough to see visually, but the busy airspace makes identifying their type and allegiance a challenge, Ox said.
Once the air pace around the threatening aircraft is deconflicted, it becomes a waiting game. The Raptors are closely monitoring the Russian fighters for any sign of aggressive behavior, and are ready to act at the slightest hint of a confrontation.