Threat comes after US shoots down Syrian SU-22 fighter jet it claims was bombing Syrian Democratic Forces fighters near Raqqa
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 Department of Defence said in a statement on Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Department of Defence told the ABC that the situation would be monitored and RAAF 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 downing of the Syrian SU-22 on Sunday by a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet is the first such US attack on a fighter jet belonging to the regime since the start of the country’s civil war six years ago.
The US said the Syrian jet had dropped bombs near Syrian Democratic Forces fighters who are aligned with US forces in the fight against Isis. Damascus said its plane had been on anti-Isis mission.
Russia’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Sergei Ryabkov, 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.”
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.
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 in a statement: “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 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 on Monday morning and would be used try to defuse the situation.
“I’m confident that we are still communicating between the coalition operations centre and the Russian operations centre,” Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the National Press Club in Washington. “I think the worst thing any of us could do would be to address this with hyperbole.”
He added: “I’m also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.”
The Russian military 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 air base allegedly involved in a chemical weapons attack. However, Moscow did not fulfil the threat and the channel remained open.