In what was possibly the most provocative moment since the start of Russia’s air campaign over Syria, Russian warplanes bombed Pentagon-backed rebels in Syria with airstrikes, forcing the U.S. military to scramble planes.
The strikes hit near a base on the Jordanian border–far from where Russians were active. They even targeted U.S.-backed forces who were fighting ISIS militants.
The Department of Defense last week said its officials held a meeting with Russian Defense Ministry counterparts to talk about the airstrikes, where U.S. officials expressed their “strong concerns about the attack on the coalition-supported” counter-ISIS fighters at the At-Tanf garrison, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.
The Russian strikes hit a base near the Syria border with Jordan. No U.S. forces were present in the area.
“The two sides reiterated the need to adhere to measures to enhance operational safety and avoid accidents and misunderstandings in the air space over Syria,” Cook said of the meeting, adding that it was an “extraordinary session” to try and “maintain safety in the air space over Syria.”
What the Defense Department didn’t say in the press release, however, was that the United States sent jets to confront Russian bombers, suggesting how chaotic things are in Syria’s skies since Russia started bombing the country.
The Navy scrambled F/A-18 fighters to intercept the Russians, the Los Angeles Times reported. Officials with the U.S. Central Command, the department that controls American wars in the Middle East, used a special hotline to call Russian counterparts to avoid air accidents.
According to the Times, the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russian officers were told by their American counterparts to end the strikes. The Russian Su-34 fighters left the area but came back.
“It’s an egregious act that must be explained,” a U.S. official told the Times. “The Russian government either doesn’t have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we’re looking for answers.”
The Russian Defense Ministry denied that Russian planes hit U.S.-backed forces, saying the strikes were about 190 miles away form the territory where the U.S. had said opposition was operating.
“The parties exchanged their opinions in a constructive manner. They were aimed at strengthening cooperation in fighting against terrorist formations in Syria and preventing all incidents while performing military operations in the territory of Syria,” the ministry said.
In recent months, the Russian Defense Ministry has suggested compiling a joint map with information about location of forces active in Syria.