A U.S. strike aircraft shot down a Syrian government fighter jet Sunday shortly after the Syrians bombed U.S.-backed fighters in northern Syria, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The Pentagon said the downing of the aircraft came hours after Syrian loyalist forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the village of Ja’Din, southwest of Raqqa. The rare attack was the first time a U.S. jet has shot down a manned hostile aircraft in more than a decade, and it signaled the United States’ sharply intensifying role in Syria’s war.
The incident is the fourth time within a month that the U.S. military has attacked pro-Syrian government forces.
A statement distributed by the Syrian military said that the aircraft’s lone pilot was killed in the attack and that the jet was carrying out a mission against the Islamic State.
“The attack stresses coordination between the US and ISIS, and it reveals the evil intentions of the US in administrating terrorism and investing it to pass the US-Zionist project in the region,” the Syrian statement said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Before it downed the Syrian plane, the U.S. military used a “deconfliction” channel to communicate with Russia, Syria’s main ally, to prevent the situation from escalating, the Pentagon said.
U.S.-led jets stopped the fighting by flying close to the ground and at a low speed in what is called a “show of force,” the Pentagon said.
About two hours later, despite the calls to stand down and the U.S. presence overhead, a Syrian Su-22 jet attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, dropping an unknown number of munitions on the U.S.-backed force. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said that the Syrian aircraft arrived with little warning and that U.S. aircraft nearby tried to hail the Syrian jet after it had dropped its bombs. Thomas also said U.S. forces were in the area but were not directly threatened.
After the hailing attempts, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down the Syrian aircraft “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition partnered forces,” the Pentagon said.
Thomas rejected the Syrian government’s claims that the aircraft was bombing the Islamic State, adding that Ja’Din is controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces and that the militant group had not been in the area for some time.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of predominantly Arab and Kurdish fighters, is a key proxy force for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria. The fighters were instrumental in retaking towns and villages from the Islamic State in recent months and are fighting to retake the group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa.
Also on Sunday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps announced that it had launched a rare cross-border missile attack against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria. The missile strikes, launched from Iran, were in retaliation for twin Islamic State attacks earlier this month in Tehran on the parliament and the tomb of the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution that killed 18 people, according to a statement carried by Iran’s official news agency.
The missile attacks had targeted a militant command center and other facilities in Deir Ez-Zour, a contested region in eastern Syria, where the United States, Iran and other powers and proxy forces are fighting for control. The strikes had killed “a large number” of militants and destroyed equipment and weapons, the statement said.
Earlier this month, a U.S. jet downed a pro-Syrian government drone that dropped an apparent dud munition near U.S.-led coalition forces near the southern Syrian town of At Tanf. U.S.-led forces have increased their presence in Tanf to deter pro-Syrian government forces in the area. Iran-backed Shiite militias, along with other pro-Syrian government forces, have steadily advanced around At Tanf despite repeated warnings from the U.S. military.
At Tanf is a key town on the Iraq-Syrian border that has been home to a U.S. special operations training outpost for months.
“The coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the Pentagon’s 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.”
Fahim reported from Istanbul. Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed to this report.