Tension has spiked in Syria after U.S. coalition forces shot down a Syrian government Su-22 warplane on June 18, slightly south of the critical town of Tabqa. In response to the event, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced June 19 that it would suspend the deconfliction channel that had been set up between Russia and the United States to prevent and de-escalate conflict between the two countries in Syria. Russia also threatened to begin treating any U.S.-led coalition aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River as a target.
The downing of the Syrian government warplane occurred after a group of rebel Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the United States clashed with Russian- and Iranian-backed loyalist troops. The rebels were moving south and attempting to expand their pocket around the city of Raqqa, while the loyalists were advancing east toward the city of Deir el-Zour. The United States said it provided ample warning and attempted to reach out through the deconfliction channel before shooting down the aircraft. Russia denies that the United States made such an attempt.
This incident comes amid a drive on both sides of the conflict to focus attention on eastern Syria. The loyalist forces are advancing east toward the Iraqi border on several fronts, while different rebel groups continue to advance south and also operate near the Jordanian border. Before June 18, there already had been several clashes between the two sides as they progressed along their paths, particularly near the al-Tanf border crossing. U.S. aircraft have struck at loyalist ground positions in the region on three occasions and shot down what is believed to have been an Iranian-operated drone.
Despite Russia's threat in response to the June 18 incident, it is unlikely that Russian forces would actually shoot down any U.S. aircraft in Syria unless seriously provoked. Though Moscow wants to show resolve in the wake of the recent U.S. strikes, it is also keen to avoid any escalation of the crisis, especially one that could evolve into a shooting war with the U.S. military. Nevertheless, the race to the Iraqi border will bring the U.S.-led rebel coalition head-to-head with Russian- and Iranian-backed loyalist forces. And the risk of miscalculation and escalation will remain high in what has become a dangerous chapter in the ongoing Syrian conflict.