A Russian interceptor was scrambled to stop a "rogue" US fighter jet from actively interfering with an anti-terrorist operation, the Russian Defense Ministry said, describing the latest close encounter between the US and Russian air force. It also accused the US of provoking close encounters with Russian jets in Syria.
According to Russia Today, a US F-22 fighter was preventing two Russian Su-25 strike aircraft from bombing an ISIS base to the west of the Euphrates river on Nov. 23, according to the ministry. The ministry’s spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov described the episode as yet another example of the US air force attempting to prevent Russian forces from carrying out strikes against Islamic State.
"An American F-22 fighter actively prevented the Russian pair of Su-25 attack aircraft from carrying out a combat mission to destroy the Daesh stronghold in the suburbs of the city of Mayadin in the airspace over the western bank of the Euphrates River on November 23. The F-22 aircraft fired off heat flares and released brake shields with permanent maneuvering, imitating an air battle," Konashenkov said on Saturday.
"The F-22 launched decoy flares and used airbrakes while constantly maneuvering [near the Russian strike jets], imitating an air fight,” Konashenkov added that the US jet backed down only after a Russian Su-35S fighter jet joined the two Su-25s.
The major general went on to say that “most close-midair encounters between Russian and US jets in the area around the Euphrates River have been linked to the attempts of US aircraft to get in the way [of the Russian warplanes] striking against Islamic State terrorists.”
He also said that the US military officials provided no explanation for the November 23 incident as well as other, similar encounters.
The statement came as a response to the Pentagon’s claims about “an increase in unsafe behavior” by Russian warplanes. “We saw anywhere from six to eight incidents daily in late November, where Russian or Syrian aircraft crossed into our airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River,” Lt. Col. Damien, the spokesman for US Air Force Central Command, told CNN earlier on Saturday.
Even though ISIS has effectively been driven out of Syria, last month Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signaled that the US is preparing for an interminable period of occupation after he told reporters at the Pentagon that the US is preparing for a long-term military commitment in Syria to fight ISIS "as long as they want to fight." At the time, Mattis indicated that even should ISIS lose all of its territory there would still be a dangerous insurgency that could morph into an "ISIS 2.0" which he said the US would seek to prevent. “The enemy hasn’t declared that they’re done with the area yet, so we’ll keep fighting as long as they want to fight,” Mattis said. “We’re not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has traction.”
Russia has blasted the US for its illegal air force presence in Syria, as Sputnik noted. And as Pickart explained, the majority of near-misses between US and Russian planes in Syria and in the area of the Euphrates were connected with the Washington's attempts to hinder Daesh's defeat.
"The statements of the US Army representatives that a part of the Syrian airspace belongs to the US is puzzling," Konashenkov stated, reminding the Pentagon that "Syria is a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations, therefore, the United States does not own any part of sky."
A ministry rep also noted that the US has so far neglected to offer explanations to the Russian command at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria "concerning this and many other incidents in the Syrian sky."
The statement was made following The New York Times' Friday's report, citing US commanders as expressing their concern over a possible collision between Russian and US warplanes over Syria, which might take place because of alleged violations of the deescalation deal by the Russian side a dozen times a day since the agreement had come into force.
"It’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots are deliberately testing or baiting us into reacting, or if these are just honest mistakes… The greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our air or ground forces," Lt. Col. Damien Pickart was quoted as saying by the media.
Col. Jeff Hogan, deputy commander of the air operations center at the Qatar base, told the newspaper that he had daily phone calls with Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, but because of occasional misunderstandings, he had to make additional calls.
According to the newspaper, the military explained Moscow's actions by the desire to entrench the positions of the Syrian army and cement its territorial acquisitions ahead of the peace talks aimed at ending the seven-year war.
Back in 2015, the US and Russia agreed upon the mutual flight safety memorandum regulating the flight paths and contacts of the countries’ air forces in Syria during an emergency. Since then, the two countries have traded accusatios over various incidents involving warplanes in the Syrian skies. Washington accused Russian jets of not carrying transponders allowing air-traffic controllers to identify them, while Moscow repeatedly said that the US military only “occasionally” indicate the time period and an approximate area of their air operations without even giving the types of aircraft and their affiliation.