The Middle East’s Dangerous Skies

As the fight against ISIS approaches its climax on the ground, the war in air is heating up.

On Sunday June 18, the US shot down a Syrian Su-22, notching America’s first air-to-air kill between two manned aircraft since the Kosovo War in 1999, when US jets knocked out four Yugoslav Mig-29s.

The dogfight took place south of Raqqa, the self-declared ISIS capital. The Syrian army and its Iran-backed allies as well as US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have besieged the city.

US Central Command issued a statement that said the Syrian jet had been targeting the SDF and was brought down “in collective self-defense of Coalition-partnered forces”.

Sunday’s incident was sandwiched between two other instances of air combat in southern Syria around At Tanaf. Just a day after the downing of the Su-22, a US F-15E destroyed a UAV that was likely operated by Iran-backed forces. The aircraft was an Iranian-made Shahed 129. Nearly two weeks earlier, another Shahed had reportedly tried to attack US-allied forces in the same area (the munition released missed). In response, an F-15E brought it down.

Russia’s reaction to the shooting down of the Syrian plane has been severe. On June 20 it announced it would no longer recognize the de-confliction mechanism between the two countries.

In a statement released Tuesday, Russia’s Defence Ministry said that henceforth, “any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River” would be “considered air targets”.

One of America’s partners in the fight against ISIS, Australia, has since suspended all air operations. A US Central Command statement stated that the US-led 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.”

Iran’s missile strike

On the same day that the Su-22 was shot down, a barrage of seven Iranian Zolfaghar ballistic missiles rose into the skies of western Iran and made their way towards ISIS targets in Deir el-Zor. The missile attack was in response to ISIS attacks in Tehran on June 7 that left 18 dead.

Despite ecstatic coverage in Iran, the missiles may have done little damage. The Times of Israel quoted sources saying only one of the missiles hit its targets and that three others failed to reach Syria, crashing instead in Iraq.

Sunday’s strike marked the first Iranian use of mid-range ballistic missiles since the war in Iraq three decades earlier.

The Arrow 2 Incident

Further to the west, another murky aviation incident highlights the growing chaos in the region’s skies. Three months ago, on March 17, Israeli jets launched sorties against Hezbollah targets in Syria. As they returned to Israeli airspace, Syrian ground forces launched several S-200 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) towards them. While the Israeli planes were unscathed, one of the S-200s was intercepted by an Arrow 2 missile fired from Israel’s ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. Fragments of the Arrow 2’s engine rained down on Jordanian territory, forcing Israel’s hitherto secret programme of air strikes in Syria into the public domain.

Why was a BMD missile deployed to intercept a SAM? The most convincing explanation appears to be that the S-200 flew into Israeli airspace but failed to self-destruct. Instead, as the SAM lost altitude, it seems likely its trajectory resembled the sort of heavier land attack ballistic missile the Arrow 2 is meant to destroy.

What next?

It might seem like ages ago, but it’s worth remembering that in November 2015, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 carrying out a bombing mission over Syria. While Turkish-Russian relations have since improved vastly, in 2015 the Turks claimed the Russian plane had violated its airspace and had been warned before it was destroyed. We don’t know the truth, but we do know such incidents are likely if countries plying a contested airspace don’t coordinate. As the struggle for the fate of Syria gains tempo, the most important step the US, Russia and Iran can take is to figure out an acceptable set of rules for plying the skies above that torn nation.

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