Russian and United States combat aircraft were involved in a potentially serious engagement in the skies over Syria on 13 December, the defence ministries of both countries confirmed.
While the US Department of Defence (DoD) and the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation differ on the details of the incident, both have said a US Air Force (USAF) Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighter fired off flares to warn off a pair of Russian Sukhoi Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ ground attack aircraft that were flying in the vicinity of the city of Al Mayadin in eastern Syria. The nearby Euphrates River is the deconfliction boundary between the United States and Russia in Syria, and is officially acknowledged by both countries as such (the United States must stay to the east of the river, and the Russians to the west).
At this point the narrative diverges, with the US stating that the two Russian jets were engaged in this manner as they had crossed over to the eastern side of the river, and were interfering with USAF aircraft conducting strikes against the Islamic State to the extent that there was nearly a mid-air collision. The DoD told US media that the Su-25s did not respond to repeated calls to leave the area, and thus were ‘warned off’ using the flares.
The Russians however said the Su-25s were escorting a humanitarian convoy that was travelling along the western bank of the Euphrates, and that it was the USAF F-22 that crossed the deconfliction boundary to harass its aircraft. The F-22 was then chased away by a Su-35 ‘Flanker-E’ fighter that was providing top-cover for the Su-25s, the Russian defence ministry said.
While this particular incident did not end badly for either side, the potential for a more serious outcome appears to be rising as such encounters increase.
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