Moscow suspends Russia – US “de-confliction channel” in Syria after downing of Syrian SU-22

Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : Russia announced that it suspended the Russia – US de-confliction channel in Syria and considers any flights within the area of its air force group’s operations in Syria as legitimate tagets. The move came after the US-led coalition shot down a Syrian SU-22 in Raqqa.

S-400 battery, here deployed in Syria to protect Russian military assets.

S-400 battery, here deployed in Syria to protect Russian military assets.

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Monday afternoon that Moscow suspends its communication channel with the United States under a memorandum to avoid incidents between Russian and U.S.-led coalition jets in Syria. The decision came after a Syrian SU-22 was shot down in Raqqa. The Ministry stated:

“As of June 19 this year, the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation has ended its interaction with the US side under a memorandum for preventing incidents and providing for safe flights during operations in Syria and demands that the US command carry out a careful investigation and report about its results and the measures taken. … The shooting down of a Syrian Air Force jet in Syria’s airspace is a cynical violation of Syria’s sovereignty. The US’ repeated combat operations under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ against the legitimate armed forces of a UN member-state are a flagrant violation of international law, in addition to being actual military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic. … Any aircraft, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected in the operation areas west of the Euphrates River by the Russian air forces will be followed by Russian ground-based air defense and air defense aircraft as air targets.”

The Ministry maintained, that at the moment the Syrian warplane was hit by the US fighter, Russia’s Aerospace Forces were carrying out missions in Syria’s airspace, but that the coalition command did not use the existing communication line between the air commands of Al Udeid Air Base (Qatar) and Khmeimim Air Base to prevent incidents in Syria’s airspace. The Ministry also stated:

“We consider the actions of the US command as a deliberate default on their obligations under the memorandum on preventing incidents and providing for safe flights during operations in Syria signed on October 20, 2015.”

The General Command of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), reported on Sunday that the air force of the “international coalition” targeted one of the army’s warplanes in al-Rasafah region in the southern countryside of Raqqa, while it was carrying out a combat mission against ISIS, causing the plane to go down. The pilot was reported as missing.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), for their part, stated that “On June 18, pro-Syrian regime forces attacked SDF forces in the town of Ja’Din, south of Tabqa, wounding a number of SDF fighters, and driving the SDF from the town. The SDF stated that following the attack in Ja’Din, the coalition contacted its Russian counterparts by phone, using a “de-conflicton line” to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing.

The US-led coalition stated “At 6.43 p.m a Syrian regime SU 22 dropped bombs near SDF fighters south of Tabqa and, in accordance with rules of engagement in collective self-defense of Coalition-partnered forces, was immediately shot down by a US F/A-18E Super Hornet”. The “Coalition” also stated that Ja’Din is located about two kilometers from an established SDF – Syrian government de-confliction zone.

As far as nsnbc is aware, neither Russia nor US have ever made the full text of the memorandum available to nsnbc international or other independent media. It is therefore difficult to assess whether or not the terms of the memorandum were violated, and if so, by whom.  Besides that, it is noteworthy that the US Defense Department and USCENTCOM evade specific answers to questions about the legal mandate for the presence of US troops in Syria.

A Super Hornet E/F firing an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM). (archives)

A Super Hornet E/F firing an AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM). (archives)

That said, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon explained to nsnbc editor-in-chief Christof Lehmann, earlier this month, while discussing incidents in Al-Tanf:

“A deconfliction zone is not a line in the sand, and it is not the same concept as the de-escalation zones that have been in the news. Syrian troops can operate anywhere in their country they want. Our actions in al-Tanf are about defending ourselves against an assessed threat which really has little to do with any kind of zone, although the word was mentioned quite a bit, mostly as a convenient unit measure.”

Asked about the legal basis for establishing such a “deconfliction zone”, such as a  relevant UN Security Council resolution or other legal frameworks, Pahon invoked a Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Russia instead, saying:

“There is a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Russian militaries with the intent to help ensure safety of flight and deconflict air operations to avoid mishaps. Operation Inherent Resolve is a complex, dynamic environment for air and ground operations, with multiple groups fighting in close proximity. As we focus on destroying ISIS, we remain ever-cognizant of the need for constant, regular communication to avoid an action that could result in a strategic miscalculation by any of the actors operating in the battles space”.

Pertaining the concept of self-defense and the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops in Syria and thereby their presumed right to “defend themselves”, Pahon said:

U.S. military commanders always retain the inherent right and obligation to exercise the customary international law of right of self-defense in response to a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent.

Defense Department spokesman Pahon’s statements, however, don’t clarify the legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops in Syria. A legal basis for their presence would, for example, be an authorization issued by the Syrian government, a UN security Council resolution that has been adopted with the concurrent vote of all five permanent UNSC members.

That said, the “Coalition” commented on the downing of the Syrian SU 22, repeating a standard, non-specific “cut and paste reply” the likes of which nsnbc and many others received on numerous occasions. The “Coalition”, without referring to any specific legal mandate, and “consistently avoiding to be specific with regard to legal mandate”, claims:

“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian regime, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partnered forces. … The Coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat ISIS in Syria poses globally. The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated. … The Coalition calls on all parties to focus their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security. …”  

Norwegian SF (archives)

Norwegian SF (archives)

The Norwegian government’s position and correspondence between the Norwegian military and nsnbc may shed some light on how “The Coalition” constructs legality in the Syrian theater. A document from Norway’s Ministry of Defense from April 29, 2016, entitled contribution of Norwegian forces to the fight against ISIL in Syria – a memo on international law states that:

  • Iraq, in 2014, had requested help from the UN Security Council to combat ISIL, including attacks by ISIL launched from Syrian territory. Moreover, it states that the Norwegian presence in Iraq today is based on the Iraqi request for help based on the UN Charter’s Article 51 on collective self defense.
  • That ISIL can’t be defeated by limiting the fight to Iraq.
  • That UN Security Council resolution 2249 from November 20, 2015 concludes that ISIL poses an extraordinary threat to international peace and security.
  • That the UNSC called on its members to fight ISIL everywhere, including its enclaves in Syria.
  • That self-defense against non-state actors who operate on the territory of another state while this state is unwilling or incapable of combating such non-state actors, is legal and covered by the provisions of UNSC resolution 2249.
Col Joseph Srocca, USCENTCOM (archives)

Col Joseph Srocca, USCENTCOM (archives)

The other “publicly accessible information” LtC Sølvsberg from Norway’s armed forces sent to nsnbc Editor-in-Chief Christof Lehmann was a press release from Norway’s Defense Ministry quoting Defense Minister Eriksen Søreide repeating the above mentioned. The third document is a memo styled to the Foreign Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Council, repeating the same arguments UNSC resolution 2249  UN Charter Article 51 and the claim of self-defense against ISIL because Syria is unwilling or incapable. The document is from January 20, 2016.

The fourth and final information LtC Sølvsdahl referred to is another press release from March 27, 2017, in which Norway’s Defense Ministry announced that it has extended its operations against ISIL. As USCENTCOM’s Col Scrocca told nsnbc international editor-in-chief Christof Lehmann in an email in response to questions about a U.S. air raid earlier this month:

Coalition special operations forces train and equip, advise, assist, accompany and enable two Vetted Syrian Opposition (VSO) groups to fight ISIS in the Jordan-Syria-Iraq /tri-border) area of southern Syria. The two VSO groups are the Mahhawir al Thawra (MaT) and the Shohada al-Quartayn (ShQ), two Syrian tribal groups whose homelands include the Qalamoun Mountain region, Euphrates River Valley and the Hamad Desert, which stretches from the Jordan border north along the Iraqi border to the Euphrates River.

This statement was also issued after repeated and specific questions about  a “legal mandate” for the presence of U.S. troops in Syria but provides policy only. One may of course conclude that “there is no legal mandate” – which would not be a first in warfare – but then, one might just as well be honest about it as a historical fact.

CH/L – nsnbc 20.06.2017

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