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Russian Planes Hit Forces in Syria



Tribune Washington Bureau
Saturday, June 18, 2016

Washington — Russian warplanes hit Pentagon-backed Syrian fighters with airstrikes this week, disregarding several warnings from U.S. commanders in what American military officials called the most provocative act since Moscow’s air campaign in Syria began last year.

The strikes hit a base near the Jordanian border, far from areas where the Russians were previously active, and targeted U.S.-backed forces battling the Islamic State militants.

No U.S. forces were present in the area, but the U.S. military scrambled fighter jets and used an emergency communications channel set up to avoid air accidents to tell Russian officers to end the strikes, according to the officials, who spoke Friday about the incident on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers left the area at first, but came back for a second strike after the U.S. F/A-18 fighters went to refuel. The second attack killed several Syrian rebels attempting to provide medical support to the survivors of the initial one, officials said.

On Thursday, an internal State Department memo became public in which 51 diplomats, using the State Department’s long-standing dissent process, criticized President Obama’s policy and called for U.S. military strikes against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia’s ally.

State Department spokesman John Kirby conceded Friday that such a large number of signatures on a dissent memo was “unusual.”

“No one’s content with the status quo,” he said. “Too many people are dying.”

Assad’s army continues to bomb civilian neighborhoods as the civil war approaches its fifth year.

Russian bombing and intervention by Iranian-backed forces have helped give Assad’s embattled government an advantage over rebel groups in recent months.

Nearly all the Russian airstrikes over the past nine months have hit northern Syria, in the region around Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city. The Free Syrian Army, a loose grouping that has received aid from Washington and its allies in the Persian Gulf and Turkey, has battled government forces for control of the city.

The U.S. has carried out its own air campaign against Islamic State positions in eastern Syria.

These latest strikes occurred on the other side of the country from the usual Russian operations, around Tanf, a town near where the borders of Jordan, Iraq, and Syria meet.

U.S. officials believe the strikes were launched to pressure the U.S. into working with Russia. Moscow has long wanted the U.S. to combine its air campaign in Syria with Moscow’s so they can share intelligence and targeting information.

The Obama administration has rejected that idea because it would put U.S. forces on the same side as Assad. The administration says Assad must leave power, although officials have said he could remain for a period of “managed transition.”