Confrontation with Assad regime complicates US-backed campaign for Raqqa

AMMAN: The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are “bringing in reinforcements” to prevent the Assad regime from getting closer to Raqqa city, a Kurdish official told Syria Direct on Monday, one day after an American plane shot down a Syrian fighter jet south of the province’s second-largest city.

Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces have captured more than a dozen villages and 500 sq. km—at considerable ease—from a rapidly retreating Islamic State (IS) since breaking into Raqqa province earlier this month. On Sunday, however, pro-regime forces arrived 40km southwest of Raqqa city and attacked the village of Jaedin, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It was the regime’s first attack in Raqqa province against the US-backed SDF, a multi-ethnic coalition of Syrian forces, which has been battling the Islamic State with the support of US airstrikes, artillery and funding.

In response, an American warplane conducted “a show of force” and temporarily pushed back the pro-regime advance towards Jaedin, CENTCOM announced in a statement on Sunday. Two hours later, a Syrian regime fighter jet bombed SDF soldiers south of Tabqa, Raqqa province’s second-largest city. The United States then scrambled a F/A-18E Super Hornet, which immediately shot down the regime aircraft.

The coalition confirmed that a United States aircraft downed the Syrian jet. It also affirmed that the coalition “does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat.”

 Pro-regime forces drive towards Maskanah on June 5. Photo courtesy of George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images.

In response to the aircraft downing, Moscow “terminated its communication channel” with the United States for coordinating missions over Syrian airspace, read a statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry, as reported by Russian state news channel, TASS, on Monday.

“The shooting down of a Syrian Air Force jet in Syria’s airspace is a cynical violation of Syria’s sovereignty,” the statement continued. “Russia will regard any flights within the area of its air force group’s operation in Syria as legitimate targets,” the report added.

Syrian state media outlet, SANA, confirmed the downing of a regime plane on Sunday, but, citing the Army General Command, insisted that the aircraft was “carrying out a combatant mission against ISIS.”

After seven months of incremental gains against the Islamic State, Kurdish sources involved in the battle for Raqqa say that the recent regime attack against the SDF complicates months of planning to unseat the Islamic State from Raqqa city, the de facto capital of the group’s self-declared caliphate.

“The regime’s forces are trying to stop our operations to liberate Raqqa city,” a spokesman for the SDF's largest Kurdish faction told Syria Direct on Monday. “We are not here to fight the regime, the Russians and their allies, but we will not be silent when our forces are targeted.”

 SDF forces inside the city of Tabqa, May 12. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images.
 

The SDF is now shifting an unspecified number of fighters to Tabqa one day after its direct confrontation with the SAA.

The move threatens to pull fighters away from the Raqqa city front, where SDF, Kurdish and Arab Syrian forces backed by the United States-led international coalition launched a battle to capture the provincial capital on June 6. The SDF continues to wrest districts from the Islamic State in Raqqa city amidst heavy fighting, Syria Direct has reported.

“The goal of the regime’s repeated attacks against our forces is to terminate our Raqqa campaign,” SDF Brigadier-general Talal Silo announced in a Monday statement via the messaging app Telegram. “If the regime continues attacking our positions in Raqqa province, we will be forced to respond and exercise our right to defend our forces.”

The SDF and pro-regime forces did not exchange fire on Monday. As of publication, it remains unclear whether a direct conflict will break out between the two sides once again.

“In the event that the regime should do such a thing, we would light up every single front we have against them: Al-Hasakah, Aleppo, Afrin and Qamishli,” the Kurdish spokesman affiliated with the SDF’s largest militia told Syria Direct on Monday on condition of anonymity. "Any regime battle against our forces would be a losing battle for them.”

The notion of the regime attacking the SDF again is “crazy,” the spokesman continued. “The downing of the plane yesterday [Sunday] should be a message to the regime to stop getting near our forces.”

Just 24 hours earlier, prior to the regime’s bombardment of SDF positions, the same Kurdish spokesman told Syria Direct that the regime “posed no threat.”

 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.