Has the US established de-facto no-fly zones in Syria?

Has the US established de-facto no-fly zones in Syria?
Analysis: Washington has shot down aircraft threatening its allies in Syria, and will likely shoot down more, writes Paul Iddon.
4 min read
20 June, 2017
US aircraft have been launching from carriers in the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean [James Brownsell/TNA]

The US has this month twice shot down aircraft over areas in Syria, north and south, where it has forces and allied militias fighting the Islamic State group. This may indicate that Washington is bidding to establish de-facto no-fly zones in these areas. How permanent they may or may not be remains unclear.

On June 18, a US F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22 bomber after it dropped bombs near the northern Syrian town of Tabqa, close to a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces position.

Ten days earlier, June 8, a US Air Force F-15E shot down an Iranian-made Shahed 129 drone, which is roughly the same size as the iconic American Predator, after it dropped bombs near a position held by US-backed Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra anti-IS fighters in Al-Tanf, on Syria's southern border with Jordan.

Another Shahed 129 drone approaching the same base was shot down by a US F-15 on June 20 after the US deemed it a threat to their allies and forces there. Both drones were reportedly operated by "pro-regime" forces.

An Iranian-made drone was also believed to have been behind an airstrike which killed four Turkish soldiers, fighting IS in the northwestern Syrian city of al-Bab, on November 24.

We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened

After the two most recent occasions, Washington stressed that its sole aim in Syria was to fight IS, not the regime or its allies. Nevertheless, it is adamant that it will "forcibly defend" against regime and militia attacks on its troops and allied forces.

"We do not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened," Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said after the June 18 incident.

Despite this, the mid-air conflicts indicate that the US is willing to confront Damascus and its allied militia forces if it perceives them to threaten its allies or their anti-IS campaign. In Al-Tanf, US aircraft bombed pro-regime forces approaching al-Thawra positions twice - on June 6 and May 18.

Similar "no-drive zones" against regime ground forces approaching SDF positions around Raqqa may be enforced if they threaten the SDF. The Syrian Army recently made advances into the western countryside of Raqqa.

The SDF issued a statement shortly after the June 18 incident charging Damascus with carrying out "large-scale attacks using aircraft, artillery and tanks" against their forces and warning if it "continues its attacks on our positions in the province of Raqqa, we will be forced to reciprocate and use our legitimate right to defend our forces".

How long the US will maintain these de-facto no-fly/no-drive zones in these two areas is unclear. It's also unclear if they will become like the formalised no-fly zones the US imposed over Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, where no Iraqi military aircraft were allowed without being intercepted and shot down by US-led coalition jets.

In north and south Syria today this is not the case. Earlier this month the US, in what CNN described as an "unusual" move, reportedly permitted Syrian regime aircraft to bomb IS within the boundaries of the US exclusion zone at Al-Tanf.

Since the Russian intervention in Syria the US has maintained a communications mechanism to avoid aerial accidents or clashes. The Russians once again threatened to turn it off it in protest over the Su-22 shoot-down, as they briefly did following Trump's missile bombardment of the Syrian regime's Shayrat Airbase in April.

According to the US General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the mechanism is still open. This is important to avoid unnecessary escalations between America's allies and the regime forces, who are now operating in close quarters in Raqqa and the border region around Al-Tanf.

America built [an airfield] in Kobane... They will soon start landing their planes there. And they will be settled there this way

The Syrian regime and Iran are not the only regional power criticising the continued American presence in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - long frustrated by Washington's support to the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the primary group within the SDF, in the fight against IS - recently criticised the US for establishing a network of airfields on Syrian Kurdish territories to support the Raqqa campaign.

"America built [an airfield] in Kobane," Erdogan said in an interview aired on June 16 by a Portuguese television station. "They will soon start landing their planes there. And they will be settled there this way.

"Won't people ask why are you doing this? Why are you entering these places?" Erdogan said, again bringing the American administration's policy in Syria into question.

While the network of airfields Erdogan refers to is unlikely to become a sufficient substitute for America's use of Turkey's Incirlik airbase, a major site which can host many strike aircraft, they do show how deeply invested the Americans are in helping their allies on the ground defeat IS.

Consequently, they are unlikely to let anyone get in their way or hinder them from achieving their objectives.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon