Confusion in the Air and on the Ground as U.S. and Syrian Planes Clashed
The fast-changing Raqqa front confounds demarcation
On June 18, 2017, a U.S. Navy fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane over southern Syria.
The incident was a direct result of the often-murky relations between the different parties fighting in Syria. From the American standpoint, the crucial reason for an American fighter to open fire at a Syrian regime jet was that the latter either came too close to, or even attacked, fighters from the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.
The SDF is dominated by the Workers Party of Kurdistan, an organization considered a terror group not only by the United States, but also most of NATO, as well. The PKK has been at war with NATO-member Turkey for more than 30 years, during which it has enjoyed the support of late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad and his son and successor Bashar Al Assad.
At least officially, the PKK in Syria is represented by its local offshoot, the PYD, plus that organization’s military wing, the YPG. The resulting PKK/PYD/YPG/SDF conglomerate came into being in October 2015 with the aim of giving the Pentagon a proxy force for fighting Islamic State that could also circumnavigate U.S. laws forbidding any kind of direct military cooperation with the PKK.
The SDF is playing a crucial role in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Syria. On June 18, 2017, the SDF was advancing on Raqqa, ISIS’ self-declared capital.
The presence of Hezbollah in the area south of Tabqah has been confirmed by reporters from Al Mayadeen News. Al Mayadeen T.V. capture
West and south of the areas occupied by the SDF are areas nominally under the control of the Syrian regime. Damascus insists that its forces in the region are all regular Syrian military. But there’s strong evidence that Hezbollah and groups answering to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are also present on the Raqqa front.
After the SDF beat them to Tabqah, 20 miles west of Raqqa, regime military forces and their allies pushed south into outlying ISIS-occupied areas. To prevent aerial mix-ups along this fast-changing front, the United States and Russia agreed on a demarcation line. According to this agreement, the village of Ja’Den, six miles south of Tabqah air base, should belong to the SDF.
But the SDF had to take the town, first. On June 17 and 18, 2017, ISIS repelled the initial SDF attack on Ja’Den. After the SDF retreated, regime or pro-regime forces advanced on Ja’Den. It’s worth noting that Hezbollah and IRGC units in Syria do not reliably respect demarcation lines that the United States, Russia and even the Syria regime generally agree upon. By the afternoon of June 18, it was unclear who controlled Ja’Den.
Amid the confusion, U.S. military aircraft kept close watch on Ja’Den. On the afternoon of June 18, F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighter jets from Carrier Air Wing 8 — embarked on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, then underway southwest of Cyprus — were flying continuous combat air patrols over Tabqah.
Leading SDF officers accompanied by U.S. military officers in northern Syria in early 2017. Photo via Facebook
At 4:30, pro-regime forces clashed with the SDF near Ja’Den, according to the U.S.-led coalition. Starting almost simultaneously, at least five Sukhoi Su-22s from the Syrian air force — some launching from Shayrat, the others from Tiyas — approached the area, too.
After one of the Sukhois dropped its bombs on or near SDF positions at around 6:40 in the evening — possibly as the result of a navigational error — U.S. commanders ordered two F/A-18E Super Hornets to open fire.
One of the Super Hornets targeted the second Syrian jet as it was approaching the combat zone from the west, apparently firing an AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile. The wreckage of the Sukhoi hit the ground a few kilometers east of Rassafah, a small town southwest of Tabqah and east of Ja’Den.
Three hours later, the Syrian ministry of defense declared its pilot killed in action — and simultaneously accused the USA of blatant aggression. Considering the complexity and chaos of the Syrian conflict, further incidents of this kind are simply unavoidable.