Julien Borger — Guardian June 20, 2017
US forces in southern Syria have shot down an Iranian-made armed drone in the second such incident in 12 days, in a further sign that Washington and Tehran’s agendas are colliding along the Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier.
A US fighter opened fire on the drone in the early afternoon because it was approaching a US outpost at al-Tanf, a strategic point near the Syrian, Iraq and Jordanian borders, according to the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State (Isis), Operation Inherent Resolve.
“The armed pro-regime Shaheed-129 UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] was shot down by a US F-15E Strike Eagle at approximately 12.30 am after it displayed hostile intent and advanced on coalition forces,” the coalition said in a statement.
“The Coalition forces were manning an established combat outpost to the north-east of al-Tanf where they are training and advising partner ground forces in the fight against Isis. This is the same location where another pro-regime UAV dropped munitions near coalition forces before it was shot down, June 8.”
The US and its coalition allies have sought to focus on Isis and avoid clashes with forces supporting the Assad regime in Damascus, most importantly the Russians and Iranians and their proxies.
But as Isis is dislodged from its current strongholds and outside powers compete for control of the vacated territory, the potential for clashes has escalated rapidly.
Tensions are also manifesting themselves in other arenas. On Tuesday, the US reported that a Russian fighter jet came within five feet of a US warplane over the Baltic Sea. US officials said the plane was armed and flying “erratically”. The incident is one of a long string of close encounters as Nato and Russian forces exercise in close proximity.
In Syria, Russia announced on Monday that it had suspended a military hotline with US forces and threatened to shoot down coalition planes that flew west of the Euphrates river after the US shot down a Syrian-piloted bomber that flew too close to a US-supported force advancing on the Isis bastion of Raqqa in northern Syria.
The US military said there were no signs on Monday that the “deconfliction” channel had been suspended and that they were keen to defuse tensions. However, Australia announced it was suspending its flights as part of the coalition while there was uncertainty over the deconfliction channel.
“As a precautionary measure, Australian defence force strike operations into Syria have temporarily ceased,” the Australian Department of Defence said on Tuesday.
Australia has six fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates that strike targets in Syria and Iraq.
The statement about the Tanf incident on Tuesday also stressed that the US was acting in self-defence.
“There is a deconfliction mechanism in place with Russian forces to reduce uncertainty in this highly contested space and mitigate the chances of strategic miscalculation,” it said. “Given recent events, the coalition will not allow pro-regime aircraft to threaten or approach in close proximity to coalition and partnered forces.”
The coalition presence in Syria addresses the imminent threat Isis in Syria poses globally. 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.
The Shaheed-129 is a new addition to Iran’s substantial drone armoury. Weapons experts said it was unlikely that such a weapon would be handed over to a local proxy and that it was almost certainly being flown by a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard fighting alongside Shia militias in Syria.
Earlier this month, a US plane shot down another drone that opened fire on coalition forces near al-Tanf. US officials said it was likely to have been operated by Iranian forces or Hezbollah.