In a statement given by the Department of Defense to various media outlets, the U.S. military confirmed that a US F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet had shot down a Syrian SU-22 aircraft, which had allegedly bombed the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
“The 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,” the Pentagon said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces backed the U.S. claim, accusing the Syrian government of having “mounted large-scale attacks using planes, artillery, and tanks” against them.
The Syrian military denies this allegation, stating that they instead were engaged in a bombing run of Islamic State forces in the area. Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, also strongly condemned the attack on the Syrian plane, describing it as “help to [Islamic State] terrorists” and a “dangerous escalation”. Russia proceeded to terminate the hotline between Washington and Moscow used to avoid collisions between their aircraft in Syria, and stated that “All flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected west of the Euphrates, will be followed by Russian air defense systems as targets.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are an alliance of militias which receive heavy Pentagon support and contain embedded U.S. Special Forces. It is dominated by the People’s Protection Units, the military wing of the far-left Democratic Union Party (PYD), which governs SDF controlled territory. Despite their self-description as ‘democratic’, their leader, Salih Muslim, has often been accused of being an authoritarian strongman himself.
Under President Trump, the SDF has received an uptick in U.S. aid, despite the objections of NATO member Turkey, which considers the PYD a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned terrorist organization. However, it has also previously received Russian support in the form of embedded troops, air support, weaponry and training, particularly immediately following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkey in 2015. Since then, relations between Russia and Turkey have grown much closer, with Russia providing Turkish troops in Syria with air support, and cooperating with Turkey during the Astana peace talks. Consequently, it is certainly plausible that this is evidence of Russia ending its policy of mediating a fragile truce between the SDF and the Syrian government, which has threatened retaliation after recent U.S. airstrikes against regime-aligned militias in southern and eastern Syria.
Nevertheless, given the constantly shifting landscape in the country’s complex civil war, mistakes often happen. In April, the United States itself accidentally hit an SDF position during a strike against what it believed were Islamic State forces. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Syrians made a similar mistake.