Australia suspends Isis air strikes in Syria as US and Russia clash over downed jet

Move comes after Moscow threatens US-led coalition planes in Syrian-controlled airspace will be treated as potential 'targets'

Samuel Osborne
Tuesday 20 June 2017 11:51
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Warning: Moscow believes US jets such as these F18s are in breach of international law in engaging Syrian targets
Warning: Moscow believes US jets such as these F18s are in breach of international law in engaging Syrian targets

Australia has suspended its airstrikes against Isis targets in Syria as a precaution after Russia threatened it would treat any US-led coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates river as potential “targets”.

The announcement came after the US military shot down a Syrian warplane on Sunday, accusing the regime of attacking the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling militants in Isis’s de facto capital Raqqa.

In retaliation, Russia threatened aircraft from the US-led coalition in Syrian-controlled airspace and suspended a hotline intended to avoid collisions in retaliation for the downing.

“As a precautionary measure, Australian Defence Force strike operations into Syria have temporarily ceased,” the Australian Department of Defence said.

“ADF operations in Iraq will continue as part of the coalition,” it added.

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A spokesman told ABC the situation would be monitored and a decision on whether to resume operations in Syria “will be made in due course”.

Australia has six fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates that strike targets in Syria and Iraq. The UK’s Ministry of Defence said it would continue operations against Isis in Syria.

In response to the first US shooting down of a Syrian fighter jet during the six-year civil war, Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it would track US-led coalition aircraft with missile systems but stopped short of saying it would fire on them.

“All kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates river will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets,” the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

It also said a “deconfliction” hotline set up between Russia and the US to prevent mid-air collisions would be suspended immediately.

Russia accused the US of failing to use the hotline before targeting the plane.

“The shooting down of a Syrian Air Force jet in Syria’s airspace is a cynical violation of Syria’s sovereignty,” the ministry said.

“The US’ repeated combat operations under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ against the legitimate armed forces of a UN member-country are a flagrant violation of international law and an actual military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”

A statement released by US Central Command on Sunday said the Syrian jet was “immediately shot down... in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defence of Coalition partnered forces”.

Smoke rises from the al-Mishlab district at Raqqa’s southeastern outskirts on 7 June

“The Coalition’s mission is to defeat Isis in Iraq and Syria. 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,” it added.

“The Coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat Isis in Syria poses globally. The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-Isis operations will not be tolerated.”

It is the most significant clash between the US and the Syrian regime since April, when Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on a government airbase from which a chemical attack is it believed was launched.

In another first, Iran – another close ally of President Assad – fired ballistic missiles at Isis targets in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria later on Sunday.

A spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, General Ramazan Sharif, said all six ballistic missiles hit their targets, according to “local sources and drone films”.

Mr Sharif told Associated Press the missile launch reflected Iran’s “military power”, though he stressed Iran has no intention of starting another war.

But his remarks came amid questions whether the strike had been effective. It was not known what exactly was hit and Iran has provided no details. Israeli security officials said on Monday they were studying the missile strike to see what they could learn about its accuracy and capabilities.

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