Australia suspends Syria airstrikes amid US-Russia tension

Published 20.06.2017 15:04
Updated 20.06.2017 16:34
A general view shows the damage along a street in the Raqqa's al-Sanaa industrial neighbourhood, Syria June 14, 2017. Picture taken June 14, 2017. (Reuters Photo)
A general view shows the damage along a street in the Raqqa's al-Sanaa industrial neighbourhood, Syria June 14, 2017. Picture taken June 14, 2017. (Reuters Photo)

Australia on Tuesday suspended its airstrikes against Daesh group targets in Syria as a precaution, after a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane earlier this week and Russia warned the U.S.-led coalition from flying over Syrian army positions west of the Euphrates River.

The announcement from Canberra came as a brief, two-day truce collapsed in the southern Syrian city of Daraa and nearby areas where regime forces have gained ground.

Australia is part of a U.S.-led coalition that has been waging war against Daesh militants in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. military shot down the Syrian warplane on Sunday, saying it had targeted the American-allied, PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that is battling the Daesh terrorists in their de facto capital, Raqqa. That led Russia, a close ally of Bashar Assad, to warn that it would target U.S.-led coalition planes flying west of the Euphrates River.

In another first, Iran — another close Assad ally — fired ballistic missiles at Daesh targets in eastern Syria, in the province of Deir el-Zour, later on Sunday. Iran's Revolutionary Guard described the strike as revenge for Daesh attacks on Tehran earlier this month that killed at least 18 people and wounded more than 50.

With the skies over Syria growing increasingly crowded, a statement from the Australian Defense Department released in the capital, Canberra, said that "Australian Defense Force protection is regularly reviewed in response to a range of potential threats."

Australia has six fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates that strike targets in Syria and Iraq.

On Monday, a day after the downing of the Syrian plane, Russia threatened aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition in Syrian-controlled airspace and suspended a hotline intended to avoid collisions in retaliation for the downing.

A spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Ramazan Sharif, said all six ballistic missiles it launched on Syria hit their targets, according to "local sources and drone films."

Sharif told The Associated Press that the missile launch reflected Iran's "military power," though Iran has no intention of starting another war.

The remarks came amid questions whether the strike had been effective. It was not known what exactly was hit and Iran has provided no details. Israeli security officials said Monday they were studying the missile strike to see what they could learn about its accuracy and capabilities.

In the Syrian capital, Damascus, opposition fighters fired artillery shells from the suburbs into the city, wounding at least three people, according to the state news agency SANA.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the eastern neighborhood of Jobar was struck on Tuesday by 12 airstrikes, adding that regime forces are trying to push into the area.

Fighting and bombardment also resumed early Tuesday in the contested city of Daraa and nearby areas where a 48-hour truce went into effect on Saturday. The truce was meant to be extended but now appears to have collapsed.

A Syrian military official in Damascus said the truce was not extended. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

"The situation is back as it was in Daraa city and fighting is ongoing," said Daraa-based opposition activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh. "The regime made the truce and then violated it."

The Observatory also reported that regime troops had captured a hill west of the city and a former army base that was held by rebels. It said regime helicopters dropped 55 barrel bombs on Daraa while warplanes carried out about 20 airstrikes.

Daraa is where Syria's crisis first broke out in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad's regime. The crisis quickly became a civil war, which has since left at least 400,000 people dead.

The push by the regime forces in the Daraa area appears headed for the Jordanian border, two weeks after Assad's troops reached the border with Iraq for the first time in years.

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