M. K. Bhadrakumar |
The shooting down of a Syrian SU-22 warplane by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet to the south of the city of Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS, on Sunday is a significant escalation of the conflict in Syria. The US statement is deliberately vague, claiming that the Syrian jet had dropped bombs “near SDF fighters”. The US central command (CENTCOM) statement said the Syrian plane was downed “in collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces”. It said “pro-Syrian regime forces” attacked an SDF held town south of Tabqa and wounded a number of fighters, driving them from the town. In a show of force, coalition aircraft stopped the initial advance. When a Syrian army SU-22 jet then dropped bombs near the US-backed forces, the statement said, it was immediately shot by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet.
According to the CENTCOM statement, before it downed the plane, it “contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established “de-confliction line” to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing”. The statement added that the US does “not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces” but will not “hesitate to defend itself or its “partnered forces from any threat.”
The Syrian statement, on the other hand, maintains that the jet was on an anti-terrorist mission against Islamic State militants. The Syrian military command has alleged that the incident underscores the “coordination between the US and the ISIS.”
A few days ago, Russia had also alleged that the US was facilitating a retreat by the ISIS fighters in Raqqa in a southerly direction toward the city of Dier Ezzur, where a Syrian army brigade is holding out against rebel groups for the past few years. The Russian jets had bombed some ISIS convoys moving out of Raqqa.
It remains to be seen whether the US move to shoot down the Syrian warplane is a deliberate step toward drawing a “red line” as regards the bombing operations by the government jets or is a retaliation for the Russian air strikes on the ISIS convoys.
At any rate, the US has been steadily escalating its attacks on Syrian government forces through the recent months. Thus:
- On September 16 last year, US aircraft carried out four strikes against the Syrian Army near the Deir Ezzur airport, killing nearly 100 people.
- On April 7, US warships fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea at the Shayrat airfield in Homs province, following a chemical weapons incident in Idlib province for which Washington held the Syrian government responsible.
- On May 18, the US struck pro-government forces near Al-Tanf in the area of an established de-confliction zone close to the Iraqi border.
- On June 6, Pentagon announced another strike on pro-Syrian government forces as they entered the de-confliction zone with Russian forces. At least two Syrian servicemen were killed and more than 15 injured.
- On June 8, the US again bombed pro-government forces near Al-Tanf following an alleged attack by a combat drone. Interestingly, late Sunday evening, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards announced that it has carried out a missile strike from its bases in the western provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan (bordering Iraq) at ISIS targets in Dier Ezzor. The IRGC said that the missile strike was an act of retaliation for the terrorist strikes in Tehran on June 7.
The US has not reacted to the Iranian missile attack on a target in Syria, which is the first such incident of its kind in the 6-year old conflict. More importantly, we do not know whether Iran is also drawing a “red line” to assert that the ISIS will no longer be able to hide behind the US and/or Israeli intelligence.
A commentary by the Middle East Eye on Friday had noted:
- Earlier this month it was revealed that the newly appointed head of Iran operations at the CIA, Michael D’Andrea (dubbed “Ayatollah Mike”) is expected to go on the offensive against the Islamic Republic.
- Managing the twin threats of IS-inspired terrorism and CIA espionage – and crucially, the potential intersection of these threats in the context of escalating regional tensions – will be the ultimate test of the Iranian security establishment’s skill and resolve… “Ayatollah Mike” is likely to focus less on traditional espionage and more on subversive activities, an area where the CIA has achieved qualified successes. The CIA, working jointly with Israeli experts, was behind the “Stuxnet” cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear establishment.
- Iranian authorities have long suspected a distant CIA hand in the Israeli-sponsored assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists between 2009 and 2012. There are fears that the assassination campaign may restart in earnest, especially if the Trump administration gives the green light to the Israelis with a view to destabilizing the nuclear accord.
The US-Israeli game plan might be to draw out Iran into a confrontation at some point – and, in the process, of course, poke the Russian bear too in Syria.
- It is worth noting the Israeli connection again, as five years ago, it was revealed that Mossad officers had tried to recruit members of the Jundallah terrorist group (which was conducting attacks in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province) by masquerading as CIA officers. While the CIA’s war on Iran, and the Iranian response, will be fought mostly in the shadows – with much of it kept well hidden from the public – repeated terror attacks, be they IS-inspired or conducted by local groups funded or directed by the Saudis, may well force an open confrontation.
The bottom line is that the US military intervention in Syria is fast expanding in scope and range as well as its strategic thrust. President Donald Trump had originally claimed that the US’ exclusive focus will be on the ISIS. But, evidently, that is no longer the case. The war in Syria has since been delegated to the Pentagon and the US military is becoming an active participant in the Syrian conflict. It is apparent that the Syrian government forces are increasingly in the US military’s crosshairs.
Conceivably, the US-Israeli game plan might be to draw out Iran (directly or through proxy groups) into a confrontation at some point – and, in the process, of course, poke the Russian bear too in Syria. Moscow’s reaction to the downing of the Syrian jet on Sunday will be keenly watched.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.