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America's widening role in Syria's civil war

A US Air Force Central Command photograph shows two F-15E Strike Eagles returning from carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria on September 23, 2014
Senior Airman Matthew Bruch (US Air Forces Central Command/AFP/File)
The shoot-down marks the first time a US jet has downed a Syrian regime warplane

The unprecedented US downing of a Syrian regime warplane on Sunday highlights the rapidly shifting dynamic in the six-year conflict where President Donald Trump has given American commanders a freer rein in the battlefield.

The United States insisted Monday it wants no broader role in Syria's civil war, and seeks only to destroy the Islamic State group, but the weekend incident shows the limits of America's ability to stay disengaged.

With myriad competing forces quickly converging in Syria, and new powers delegated to Trump's commanders, the risk of additional confrontation is real.

- What happened?

An American Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22, which was dropping bombs near a US-backed group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Pentagon.

The incident unfolded near the IS stronghold of Raqqa, the main focus for anti-IS efforts in Syria, after regime forces had engaged SDF fighters.

According to the US-led coalition fighting the jihadists, the Syrian warplane was shot down "in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition partnered forces."

Syria's army disputed the US account, saying its plane was hit while conducting a mission against IS.

A US official told AFP the pilot of the Syrian plane appeared to have ejected before the jet was hit, though his fate was unknown.

- How serious is this?

The shoot-down marks the first time a US jet has downed a Syrian regime warplane, despite leading a massive air campaign targeting IS in Syria for nearly three years.

Russia, which is flying its own air war in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, condemned the incident and said it had shut off a special "deconflict" hotline with the US military, through which the two powers can warn each other of operations and avoid mishaps.

The US military later said it was seeking to re-establish the hotline.

Sunday's incident marks the latest in a series of US attacks on pro-regime forces.

In April, Trump authorized a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack by the regime against civilians.

Then in May, coalition aircraft struck a pro-regime convoy apparently transporting Shia militiamen as it drove toward a coalition garrison near the Jordanian border.

A similar incident occurred June 6, and on June 8 a US warplane shot down a pro-regime drone in Syria after it fired at coalition forces.

- Deepening American involvement?

The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed it has no interest in increasing its role in Syria's civil war, and that its sole focus is on defeating IS.

What the recent incidents "indicate is a complicated and complex battle space, and we continue to try to operate transparently and to communicate intentions around our actions so it is clear we are focusing on the defeat of ISIS in Syria," US Central Command spokesman Colonel John Thomas said on Monday.

Officials emphasize the strikes were all conducted in self-defense after pro-regime forces ignored warnings.

But the incidents also highlight the changing dynamics of the Syrian civil war.

Until recently, pro-regime forces were focused on fighting rebels in western Syria but victories in Aleppo and elsewhere have freed them up to move east, pushing them into contact with the SDF.

Many analysts see Iran's hand behind this push towards eastern Syria and the Iraqi border.

- New powers

Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to quickly defeat IS, ordered his generals to come up with a revised plan to defeat the jihadist group.

The review resulted in an "annihilation campaign" aimed at killing all IS fighters, and saw commanders gain greater autonomy to make battlefield decisions and approve strikes.

Thomas said the new powers would not have played any role in the recent decisions to attack pro-regime forces, as these were all ordered in self-defense.


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