US says Russian jets 'harassed' American drones over Syria
The United States Air Force has released video footage it says shows Russian fighter jets flying close to and harassing several American drones over Syrian airspace, setting off parachute flares that forced the drones to take evasive manoeuvres.
US Air Forces Central, the air component to Washington's Centcom, said in a statement that the events "represent a new level of unprofessional and unsafe action by Russian air forces operating in Syria".
Lieutenant General Alex Grynkewich, commander of the Ninth Air Force in the Middle East, said in a statement that the Russian fighter planes "began harassing the drones" while three of the MQ9 Reapers were operating over Syria after 10:30am local time on Wednesday. The drones were on a mission against the Islamic State (IS) group, which was not detailed.
"We urge Russian forces in Syria to cease this reckless behaviour and adhere to the standards of behaviour expected of a professional air force so we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of Isis," Grynkewich said using another term for the IS group.
No other details about the drone mission were provided, and the US Air Force did not say where over Syria the incidents took place.
Both the US and Russia maintain a military presence in Syria. US troops arrived in northeast Syria in 2015 as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-majority militia, they pushed back IS after it swept through vast swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq. The US under previous President Donald Trump said the group was territorially defeated in 2019.
Moscow has been among the top political, economic and military backers of Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus since the start of the conflict in Syria in March 2011.
Russia has maintained a military presence at its Hmeimim air base, near the city of Latakia, since it entered the civil war.
Its military intervention was crucial in turning the tide for Assad and giving him the upper hand in the conflict after his forces had lost much territory to rebel and militant groups.