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Russia warns US after downing of Syrian jet

Two Russian S-400 Triumf missile systems are seen at the Russian military base in Latakia province in the northwest of Syria. (AFP)
BEIRUT: Russia has warned it would track US-led coalition aircraft in central Syria as “targets” and halted an incident-prevention hotline with Washington after US forces downed a Syrian jet.
Moscow has only once before suspended the hotline, which was established in October 2015 to prevent conflict between the different forces operating in Syrian airspace.
The shootdown incident and Russia’s response further complicate Syria’s six-year war and come as the US-led coalition and allied fighters battle to oust Daesh from its Syrian bastion Raqqa.
Analysts say neither Washington nor Bashar Assad’s regime appear to be seeking further confrontation, but warn that the risks are high in Syria’s increasingly crowded battlefields.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Washington of failing to use the hotline before downing the plane near Raqqa, and called for a “careful investigation by the US command” into the incident.
“Any flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, discovered west of the Euphrates river will be tracked as aerial targets by Russia’s air defenses on and above ground,” it warned.
The Syrian jet was shot down on Sunday evening after regime forces engaged fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance battling with US support against Daesh, in an area close to Raqqa.
The American F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down the Syrian SU-22 around 7:00 p.m. as it “dropped bombs near SDF fighters” south of the town of Tabqa, the coalition said in a statement.
It said that several hours earlier, regime forces had attacked the SDF in another town near Tabqa, wounding several and driving the SDF from the town.
The coalition said the Syrian warplane had been shot down “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.”
Syria’s army disputed the account, saying its plane was hit while “conducting a mission against the Daesh terrorist group.” It warned of “the grave consequences of this flagrant aggression.”
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, called it a “continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of international law,” adding: “What is this if not an act of aggression?”
The incident was the latest skirmish between the US-led coalition and regime forces in the increasingly tense and crowded space in Syria’s north and east.
The coalition has for months backed SDF forces in their bid to capture Raqqa, an operation in which the regime has not been involved.
The SDF entered Raqqa for the first time earlier this month and now holds four neighborhoods in the east and west of the city.
Damascus has instead turned its focus further east, to the largely Daesh-held oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, where government forces are besieged in part of the provincial capital.
It is advancing toward the region on three fronts, south of Raqqa, through the Badia desert region in central Syria, and along Syria’s eastern border.
But the advances have created conflict with the US-led coalition, particularly along the Syrian border, where US and other foreign forces are training an anti-Daesh force at the Tanf garrison.
In recent weeks, the coalition has fired on pro-regime ground forces approaching the garrison and shot down a pro-regime armed drone.
The coalition describes these incidents as “force protection” measures and says its primary focus remains targeting Daesh.
Outside of coalition operations, US forces have only once directly targeted the regime, when Washington launched a barrage of strikes in April against an air base it said was the launchpad for an alleged chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.
Sam Heller, a Syria expert at The Century Foundation think-tank, said the regime was provoking confrontations, but neither side appeared to want a major escalation.
“I think that it was just that the regime engaged in a provocation and then a lower-rung US commander responded in self-defense,” he said of Sunday’s incident.
“The regime got too close and it got burned.”
He said the provocations by Syria’s government and its allies were a potentially risky strategy.
Government forces, meanwhile, seized the town of Rusafa, south of Raqqa, a key stop on its path to Deir Ezzor and located near provincial oil and gas fields, the monitor said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Monday that the next round of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana will be held on July 10.
The meeting is set to coincide with a fresh round of UN-sponsored Syria peace talks that will also begin in Geneva the same day.

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