Australia suspends air missions over Syria amid US-Russia tensions

Australia has suspended air combat missions over Syria after Russia threatened that it would treat any plane from the US-led coalition flying west of the Euphrates river as a potential target.

Russia said it was responding to US planes shooting down a Syrian air force jet on Sunday. The US said its planes had acted to defend US-backed forces seeking to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State (Isis) stronghold in north-east Syria.

“As a precautionary measure, Australian defence force strike operations into Syria have temporarily ceased,” the Australian Department of Defence said on Tuesday.

Australia has six fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates that strike targets in Syria and Iraq.

A spokesman for the Department of Defence told the ABC that the situation would be monitored and sorties over Iraq would continue. “Australian defence force personnel are closely monitoring the air situation in Syria and a decision on the resumption of ADF air operations in Syria will be made in due course,” he said.

The UK Ministry of Defence said it would continue its operations against Isis as part of the US-led coalition in Syria.

Moscow’s warning on Monday to US-allied warplanes west of the Euphrates escalated the threat of a direct Russian-American confrontation in Syria, following the first US shooting down of a fighter jet belonging to the regime since the start of the civil war six years ago.

Russia stressed it would in future be tracking the coalition’s jets, not shooting them down, but added that “a threat for those jets may appear only if they take action that poses a threat to Russian aircraft”.

Moscow’s foreign ministry said: “All kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] of the international coalition, detected to the west of the Euphrates river will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets.”

The Russian foreign ministry also said it would respond to the attack by suspending its communications channel with US forces, which is designed to prevent collisions and dangerous incidents in Syrian airspace.

The top US general, Joseph Dunford, sought to play down the repercussions of the incident, insisting the hotline established eight months ago between US central command in Qatar and its Russian equivalent in Syria was still open and functioning.

The Russian military had threatened to close the hotline, known as the “deconfliction channel”, in April after the US president, Donald Trump, ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase allegedly involved in a chemical weapons attack.

The growing risk of a confrontation between the US and Russia follows Trump’s decision to grant his military chiefs untrammelled control of military strategy in Syria.

The deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, on Monday said the US strike “has to be seen as a continuation of America’s line to disregard the norms of international law”.

“What is this if not an act of aggression? It is, if you like, help to those terrorists that the US is fighting against, declaring they are carrying out an anti-terrorism policy,” he said.

The Pentagon insisted it was not seeking to escalate the conflict and had acted only after the Syrian jet in question had dropped bombs near US partner forces involved in the fight to wrest Raqqa from Isis control.

“We made every effort to warn those individuals not to come any closer and then the commander made a judgment that it was a threat to the forces that we are supporting and took action,” Dunford said.

Col John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, said there were no US forces in the immediate vicinity but that the SDF was under threat for more than two hours.

The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters working alongside western special forces, said it would take action to defend itself from Syrian warplanes if attacks continued.

The tensions between Washington and Moscow over efforts to dislodge Isis from its Raqqa stronghold are a long way from Trump’s plan to work with Russia in Syria to defeat the terror group.