Russia has stepped up its harassment of U.S. forces in Syria, overflying American positions with armed fighters and closing within a few hundred feet of U.S. fighters, U.S. officials said. Perhaps most alarmingly, a Russian surface-to-air missile system fired at a U.S. drone back in November.
Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, the head of Air Forces Central, expressed alarm at the actions of Russian warplanes, warning in a statement they increase the “risk of miscalculation.”
According to AFCENT, Russia has routinely flown into airspace over Syria that the two countries previously agreed would be controlled by the U.S., and its fighters have come as close as 500 feet to American warplanes in that airspace. Armed Russian warplanes have flown over U.S. ground positions more than two dozen times since the beginning of March.
A Russian surface-to-air missile was even fired at an American drone over Syria. On Nov. 27, an SA-22 site in eastern Syria engaged a U.S. MQ-9, a U.S. official told Air & Space Forces Magazine. The missile missed. The incident was first reported by The Washington Post.
Air Forces Central said the incidents with Russian warplanes demonstrate a “dangerous” pattern by pilots that threatens the roughly 900 U.S. troops in Syria assisting local groups in the battle against ISIS militants, as well as their American partners. Russia is in the country supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
“This kind of unprofessional and unsafe conduct in Syria is not new but has grown more frequent over the past two months and places our troops in the air and on the ground at risk,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Joe Buccino told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “This kind of behavior is not what we expect from a professional force.”
The most recent incident came April 18, when a Russian warplane flew into U.S. airspace in Syria. Airspace over Syria is subject to an agreement in which U.S. and Russian forces are supposed to stay out of each other’s way, including a 34-mile deconfliction zone around the Al Tanf Garrison. The two countries operate a deconfliction line designed to prevent the two militaries from directly clashing.
“U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft took off from air bases in the region and intercepted the Russian fighter,” Air Forces Central said. “During the intercept, the Russian pilot maneuvered unprofessionally within 2,000 feet of U.S. aircraft, violating standing deconfliction protocols.” The U.S. declassified video of the incident.
Since March 1, there have been “63 total overflights as of 19 April, of which 26 were armed,” AFCENT spokesperson Capt. Lauren T. Linscott told Air & Space Forces Magazine.
Retired Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, who served as AFCENT commander between 2016-2018, said the number of recent Russian overflights was “significant.”
“They know where our guys are because we’ve been there forever,” Harrigian told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “It begs the larger question of what their mission is because you’re just putting yourself in a situation where somebody on either side could make a bad decision and the consequences of that are going to be something that nobody wants.”
According to Linscott, the 63 incidents violated one or more of a number of protocols agreed upon by the two countries: Russian aircraft flew through areas which the U.S. and Russia have agreed to notify each other prior to transiting, violated mutually agreed-upon standoff distances from aircraft and ground forces, and conducted armed overflights of ground forces.
“Over the course of my career, I have not seen this kind of disregard for agreed upon protocols and deconfliction rules,” Grynkewich said.
An April 2 incident was of particular concern to AFCENT. In that encounter, a Russian Su-35 had what AFCENT called an “unsafe and unprofessional” exchange with an American F-16.
“The Russian Su-35 had not been deconflicted when it entered the airspace,” AFCENT said. “These aggressive actions by Russian aircrew demonstrate a lack of competence and could lead to miscalculation and unintended escalation.” The command also released a video of that encounter.
The latest Russian actions come as U.S. personnel already face deadly aerial attacks on bases in the country from Iranian-backed militant groups. The most recent attack against a U.S. site occurred April 10 in northeast Syria when a rocket landed around Mission Support Site Conoco.
Grynkewich previously said there had been off-and-on periods of Russian activity, but things had begun to pick up in late February. Overall, Russia’s activity has gotten increasingly dangerous following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he said. The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the latest incidents.
Russian Su-35s have had two known run-ins with U.S. aircraft in just over a month. On March 14, two Su-35s intercepted a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone surveilling the Black Sea. One of the Russian planes clipped the MQ-9’s propeller, forcing the U.S. to down it due to damage, the Pentagon said.
On April 4, two days after the Su-35 and F-16 incident, Grynkewich flew an F-16 from the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron in a combat mission over Syria out of Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, in support of the campaign against ISIS.
“It is critical to me as the AFCENT commander to have the greatest possible awareness of the challenges our warfighters face in the air,” Grynkewich said of the mission.
The U.S. military has insisted that despite the threat of Iranian-backed militant groups, Russian interference, and Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish groups the U.S. is partnered with, America remains committed to rooting out ISIS. Grynkewich said they are prepared to defend the air with force if necessary—something the U.S. Navy did when an F/A-18 shot down a Syrian Su-22 in 2017, though U.S. and Russian aircraft have never clashed. AFCENT has been strained by limited resources, however, struggling to meet its two and half-squadron requirement. It recently received aging A-10s, based out of Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, to ensure it could meet its minimum capacity requirements.
“We’ve seen Russian aircraft come within 500 feet of our aircraft,” said Grynkewich. “As a professional air force, we will do everything in our power to ensure we maintain safety of flight and engage according to our special instructions. However, if any entity threatens the safety and security of coalition forces in the sky or on the ground, we will take swift action to address the threat.”