19 Times In 24 Hours: Led By F-35 & Rafale Jets, US & Russian Fighters Come Dangerously Close To Exchanging Blows

Far from the theater of war in Ukraine, the rivalry between the US and Russia is playing out in Syria in full force. Moscow now reports that US warplanes created a “dangerous situation” in Syria’s Al-Tanf area 19 times in 24 hours.

“A total of 19 violations were registered in the Al-Tanf area: by three pairs of F-35 jets, four pairs of F-16 jets, a pair of Rafale jets, and three MQ-1C coalition multipurpose drones,” Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria deputy head Counter Admiral Vadim Kulit announced in the latest communication to the media.

He noted that the US-led coalition regularly created dangerous situations in Syrian skies. In another communication, Kulit also announced that an F-16 fighter jet of the Western coalition “dangerously approached” a Russian Su-35 aircraft near the southern Syrian border.

Before this incident, he had alleged that the US coalition warplanes had violated Syria’s airspace 26 times in just 24 hours. Although these encounters between the two sides have been labeled as alarming by military watchers and officials, such conditions have persisted for several weeks.

In a dangerous and unprecedented episode earlier this month, Moscow claimed that two F-35 jets from the pro-American coalition came dangerously close to two Su-35s belonging to Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria on August 14.

In fact, as per Russian allegations, a total of three pairs of F-16s, three pairs of F-35s, two teams of Rafale, and one pair of Typhoon fighter jets from the coalition, along with two MQ-1C multi-role unmanned aerial vehicles, trespassed Syria’s airspace in the Al-Tanf region throughout the day.

Like regular Russian reports of violations committed by the international coalition, the Western press regularly carries reports of Russian overreaches. The first reports of trouble brewing between the two sides were disclosed by US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Earlier, the head of the US Air Forces Central Command, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, warned quite early on that it was “a ripe situation for us to see some miscalculation. It signals a breakdown in professionalism that I have never seen out of the Russian Air Force.”

Soon after, Russia hit back with its allegations and accusations of violations committed by the United States-led International Coalition. Tensions now continue to run high, with both countries alleging mutual harassment using their fighter jets and ground personnel. The US and Russia may be fast approaching an armed confrontation.

Approaching A Blow-Up?

Both the US and Russia maintain significant military presence in Syria. The US-led International Coalition was established in 2014 with the stated aim of fighting the Islamic State.

The US has since provided material, monetary, and logistical backing from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and its armed wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

In contrast to the US entry into Syria, it was amid a worsening security situation in 2015 that Russia joined ranks with the Bashar Al Assad regime and Iran to take on the rebels. Barring a few incidents that brought them to the verge of a minor military confrontation, Russia and the US-led coalition have managed to steer clear of each other.

However, 2023 started on a peculiarly high note in Syria, with increased engagements reported between the two Cold War rivals, hinting that the Middle Eastern country was gradually becoming the new battleground of rivalry between the two adversaries.

It started gathering pace in March when Grynkewich alleged that Russian Su-34 Fullback fighter planes were seen flying directly above Al Tanf, the most significant US military base in Syria. He noted that few were equipped with air-to-air weapons, while others were fitted with air-to-ground munitions, including radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles.

Later, in April, the US CENTCOM declassified two videos showing Russian Su-35 fighter jets carrying out very unsafe interceptions of two American fighters on two different occasions. Ironically, the American F-16s have been accused of doing the same to the Russian Su-35s as the game of cat and mouse between the two sides continues unabashedly.

July was particularly tense as it started with the US accusing Russia of engaging in risky maneuvers near US military drones, raising concerns that Moscow may deliberately attempt to “bring down” another MQ-9 Reaper. At the time, Grynkewich stated that the Russian pilots harassed the drones multiple times throughout the encounter.

Later that same month, the deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, Rear Admiral Oleg Gurinov, reported that on July 26, a US-made MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle of the US-led international coalition flew “dangerously close” to two Russian Su-35 and Su-34 aircraft in the Al-Bab region.

At the time, Gurinov further revealed that when the MQ-9 Reaper locked its weapons on the Russian jets, they reacted by firing decoy flares as soon as its radars picked them up.

In contrast, reports and videos posted by pro-Western accounts on social media stated that a Russian fighter jet attacked & severely damaged an American MQ-9 Reaper drone conducting anti-ISIS operations over Syria.

These developments and dozens of others have been reported by both sides almost every day since. Military watchers have warned that a military conflict could be brewing in the region. These warnings are quickly becoming more realistic and alarming by the day as more incidents come to light.

International Coalition Deployments Paint A Worrisome Picture

On its part, the US has been steadily ramping up its military presence in the region, which, according to analysts, is an attempt at somewhat correcting the strategic balance in the war-torn country, which currently favors Moscow.

For perspective, approximately 900 American soldiers are stationed in Syria instead of the 6,000 Russian troops present in the country, which is believed to be militarily supported by Armenia. Currently, several parts of Syria are believed to be under the sovereignty of Russia, which unofficially shares administration with Assad’s regime.

In contrast, the US-led coalition only administers territory freed from the ISIS terrorists. These concerns are further compounded by the looming threat of Russia teaming up with Iran and Syria to dislodge US forces out of the country.

In a study published earlier this month, the Institute of the Study of the War said, “Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime are coordinating a coercive campaign to expel the United States from Syria. This campaign poses a serious risk to US forces in Syria and US interests in the Middle East.”

It supported that argument because the deployment of Syrian and Iranian troops to eastern Syria coincided with an operational cooperation expansion with Russia. Moreover, according to the study, Moscow has provided intelligence to Iran while conducting more aggressive flights against US forces in Syria since mid-March.

Against that backdrop, there is a prevailing view that the international coalition would need to up its activity to prevent being intimidated by the Russians. Last month, the US deployed a dozen F-35 stealth fighter jets in the region to beef up US Central Command’s airpower.

When the jets touched down to take on their duties in the Middle East, it was believed the deployment was also to cater to the US Air Force pilots’ allegations of harassment by Russian jets besides the apparent threat posed by Iran. A few days later, the F-35s made an appearance in Syria.

F-35 Czech Republic
F-35 Lightning II

Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the US Institute of Peace’s Middle East and North Africa Center, told Arab News that it was likely Russian President Putin’s resentment over US assistance to Ukraine, which was responsible for these provocations.

Mona said, “We have seen, clearly since at least March of this year, a clear escalation of tensions, driven largely by Russian provocations of the US in Syria,” she said. “Those heightened tensions derive directly from the war in Ukraine, where I think the Russians are looking to stick a finger in the US eye and provoke the US to the extent that they can in a place that is a bit removed from the Ukraine conflict arena itself.”

A Middle East-based expert previously told EurAsian Times on the condition of anonymity: “Given the situation in Ukraine, it appears that the increasing number of engagements between the two sides is an unwarranted escalation. The US and Russia know that committing more resources away from the Ukrainian battlefield is not the wisest action. At this critical juncture, neither side can afford to risk escalation.”

Several military watchers have highlighted this over the last couple of months. A Middle East-based military analyst who goes by the ‘Patarames’ on social media told EurAsian Times, “Such changes happen if the power equations change. Ukraine should be the driving factor. The pressure Russia, China, and Iran are putting on US resources means that low-priority regions suddenly get contested. Iran and Russia are playing hand in hand here to get the US out of Syria.”

There were concerns that the F-35 stealth fighters could see confrontation with Russian Su-35 and Su-34 aircraft after their deployment to the region. Incidentally, they came true when two F-35s allegedly buzzed dangerously close to two Su-35 fighters over Syria on August 14, which, according to Russian officials, could have caused a collision.

Additionally, military observers observed that the US was expanding military deployment in the Middle East when stealth F-22s from Europe arrived in Jordan as part of a temporary rotation designed to thwart Russian pilot maneuvers in the region. The deployment of the two fifth-generation stealthy aircraft is in addition to an array of other jets, like the F-16s and the French Rafales.

Not just that, the coalition has also deployed its MQ-9 Reaper drones, among other spy drones, to maintain effective deterrence against the Russians, whom they blame for the prevailing tense circumstances. These deployments, however, have raised concerns that an aerial conflict could be imminent.

The hostilities have undoubtedly given rise to the fact that the two countries could trigger a military conflict as the adventurism continues and aerial confrontations refuse to abate.