In signs of the civil war in Syria continuing to flicker, Russia accused the US-led coalition of violating Damascus’s airspace six times in a single day with six aircraft, including F-15, Dassault Rafale fighters, reconnaissance aircraft, and a drone on December 3 in the Al-Tanf region.
While encounters between Russian and US aircraft trying to deter and stare down at each other in the region are standard, that this is happening amid a raging Israel-Hamas war makes it problematic.
As Israel routinely strikes Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon even before the war while also being targeted by the Yemen-based Houthis, it is creating fertile ground for an expanded regional conflict.
In Syria, Russia has “deconfliction mechanisms” with the US and Israel, which essentially involves not interfering with each other’s interests in the Levantine country, despite being on the opposite sides of the civil war there.
This means the three can attack each other’s proxy actors — the Syrian Arab Republic; the Syrian opposition/Free Syrian Army; the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG); and the Iranian-linked Shia militias — without directly striking the other.
Russia-US Deconfliction Mechanism Being Tested?
Russian and US forces have been drawn into accidental tense confrontations before. But the direct hotline and military-to-military communication channels — local middle-level, senior-mid level, higher-rank mission commanders and the top military leadership like the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (US) and the Chief of General Staff (Russia) — have prevented escalations.
But of late, Russia has been loudly complaining about the US and its coalition’s aircraft breaching the Syrian airspace it controls multiple times a day. It claimed 43 cases of violations in Syria in general and 206 violations in the Al-Tanf in November. Syria’s south-central Al-Tanf region houses a US base just on the tri-junction of its border with Iraq and Jordan, where the Russians have been noting violations.
The latest breach was on December 3, which the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Parties in Syria (RCROPS) said occurred six times. According to a report on TASS, over the al-Tanf area, Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit, deputy chief of the RCROPS, said, “Aircraft of the so-called international anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States continue to create dangerous situations that may cause air accidents or incidents and escalate the situation in Syria’s airspace.”
He noted “a pair” each of the coalition’s F-15 and Rafale fighter jets, an MS-12W reconnaissance aircraft, and an MQ-1C multi-role unmanned aerial vehicle violating Syria’s airspace in the al-Tanf area.” This was “six times during the day,” despite the presence of international air routes that lie in the zone. It also brings the total number of coalition aircraft involved to six.
This was apart from the “eight” shelling attacks on the positions of government forces during the day from the ranks of the Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist group and Turkistan Islamic Party (both outlawed in Russia) in the “Idlib de-escalation zone.”
The TASS report naming the involvement of these two extremist groups has been consistent with long-running Russian (and, by extension, Syrian and Iranian) accusations about the US role in the region. They claim Washington has at some point either directly supported or its policies have benefited radical Islamist outfits in pursuit of opposing a secular Basher al-Assad government.
“In the province of Latakia, as a result of mortar shelling attacks by illegal armed groups on positions of Syrian government forces, three Syrian soldiers were wounded,” Kulit added. The report separately said that one soldier was also injured.
Other Violations In November 2023
On November 29, RCROPS recorded nine violations over Al-Tanf with nine aircraft that comprised “a pair of F-15 fighters, a pair of F-16 fighters, a pair of Rafale fighters and three MQ-1C multi-role unmanned aerial vehicles.”
With the total aircraft numbering nine, it also appears that the number of aircraft directly corresponds to the number of violations, where each aircraft or the “pair” constitutes one single breach. Kulit also noted “three shellings” on Syrian Arab Army positions from JAN and TIP. November 28 had two Rafales and a B-350 reconnaissance violating Syrian airspace over Al-Tanf three times.
November 26 saw the Russians complaining about “eight” airspace violations over Al-Tanf. “A pair of F-15 fighters, a pair of F-16 fighters, two pairs of coalition Rafale fighters” (eight aircraft) were involved. A day prior, on November 25, witnessed “two” violations of Syrian airspace by “a pair” of Rafale fighters over Al-Tanf.