After Russian threat, Dunford says US forces 'have the capability to take care of themselves'
American forces operating in Syria or its airspace are capable of defending themselves, the top U.S. military officer said Monday after Russia threatened to shoot down foreign aircraft in its area of operation in the war-torn nation.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was aware of reports that Moscow had threatened to “target” U.S. military planes flying west of the Euphrates River in Syria on the day after a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian warplane.
Despite the Russians’ threat to discontinue using a hotline set up to ensure flight safety over Syria, Dunford said communications between the two nations had continued as of Monday morning.
“I’m confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation center,” Dunford said at the National Press Club in Washington. “I’m also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.”
U.S. aircraft were being repositioned Monday after concerns about the contested battle space, said Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the Baghdad-based Operation Inherent Resolve.
“As a result of recent encounters involving pro-Syrian Regime and Russian forces, we have taken prudent measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrew given known threats in the battle space,” Dillon said.
The Pentagon said Sunday’s strike against the Syrian fighter-bomber — a first in the six-year-old conflict in that country — was done to protect U.S.-backed troops on the ground who were under threat from the aircraft.
Dunford said the incident occurred within the international laws of war, as an effort to protect coalition forces who are focused on fighting ISIS.
“The only actions we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria … have been in self-defense,” he said. “We’ve communicated that clearly.”
The strike occurred after the Sukhoi SU-22 ground attack jet dropped bombs near U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Force fighters south of Tabqah. The aircraft “was immediately shot down by a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet,” the U.S. coalition said in a statement.
“The Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the 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.”
Earlier in the day, pro-Syrian regime forces attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, who were held in the town of Ja’Din, south of Tabqah, it said.
The U.S. attempted to defuse to situation, calling into a special “deconfliction” line established with Moscow to reduce potential miscalculations. Coalition aircraft conducted a show of force, but the situation continued to escalate, culminating in the downing of the Syrian war plane.
The confrontation has ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which backs President Bashar Assad’s government.
Dillon said the coalition remains open to using the deconfliction line, which “has proven its worth in the past to tap down tensions.”
The phone channel was established in late 2015 to protect the multiple aircraft flying over Syria.
On Monday, Moscow disputed the U.S. account that it used the deconfliction line. The Russian Defense ministry also threatened that its missile defense systems would be used to intercept any aircraft in its area of operations.
“In areas where Russian aviation is conducting combat missions in the Syrian skies, any flying objects, including jets and unmanned aerial vehicles of the international coalition discovered west of the Euphrates River will be followed by Russian air and ground defenses as air targets,” the ministry said in a statement.
Damascus also condemned the downing of the Sukhoi, saying its plane was engaged in bombing ISIS positions in the area when it was struck from behind.
The shootdown was believed to be the first U.S. air-to-air kill involving manned aircraft since the Kosovo war in 1999, when an Air Force F-16 shot down a Serbian MiG-29.
Earlier this month, the U.S. also shot down a drone suspected of supporting Iranian-backed forces in Syria, where the battlefield has gown increasing complex and congested.
Overall, the U.S. has stepped up operations in Syria as partner forces seek to push ISIS out of its stronghold in Raqqa. The USS George H.W. Bush is again launching airstrikes from the eastern Mediterranean, where it is closer to Raqqa and other Islamic State targets in Syria as allied forces’ fight against the terrorist group escalates.
Navy Hornets, such as the one that shot down the Syrian fighter Sunday, routinely fly from the carrier, which the fighter involved in Sunday’s strike launched from, a defense official said.
The Bush pounded ISIS from the Persian Gulf for more than two months, then on June 5 it returned to the eastern Mediterranean where it had launched air assaults in early March. It has launched more than 800 sorties and 300 airstrikes — which often involve multiple jet fighters — since the strike group deployed for Operation Inherent Resolve in January, according to Navy data.
Some analysts said the Bush’s move to the Mediterranean gives the offensive in Raqqa a boost.
“If we’re going after Raqqa, flight distances and times are shorter from the Med than from the Gulf,” said Jim Holmes, strategy professor at the Navy War College in Newport, R.I.
Fighter pilots can fly more missions into Syria, refuel less in midair and not worry about traveling through unauthorized airspace as they would in the Persian Gulf, Holmes said.
U.S. warplanes have released more munitions aimed at the terrorist group in May than any previous month since the war began in 2014. Aircraft dropped 4,374 bombs and missiles on ISIS targets in May, the first time the coalition surpassed 4,000 airborne munitions against ISIS in a single month, according to a Pentagon report released last week.
Stars and Stripes reporter Tara Copp contributed to this report.