Australia halts Syria air strikes after Russia warning
Suspension is ‘precautionary measure’ amid rising tensions between Russia and US over downing of a Syrian jet.
Australia’s military said it was temporarily halting air missions over Syria after the shooting down of a Syrian jet by US forces.
The decision came amid increasing tension between the US and Russia, which warned it would track coalition aircraft in Syria as potential “targets” and halted a military hotline with Washington over the incident.
“As a precautionary measure, Australian Defence Force (ADF) strike operations into Syria have temporarily ceased,” Australia’s Department of Defence said in a statement.
“ADF operations in Iraq will continue as part of the coalition.”
Russia made clear it was changing its military posture in response to the US downing of a Syrian military jet on Sunday, which, according to Damascus, is the first such incident since the start of the conflict in 2011.
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“ADF personnel are closely monitoring the air situation in Syria and a decision on the resumption of ADF air operations in Syria will be made in due course,” Australia’s Department of Defence said.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from the Australian city of Cairns, said Australia’s decision signals that it may believe there is a threat.
“Symbolically this is very important because Australia is a key partner in the US-led coalition operating over Syria and Iraq and for it to withdraw its aircraft, even temporarily, is a sign that they feel there is a threat from Russian aircraft and the Syrians,” Thomas said.
“In the short term they’re going to take stock and decide whether to resume operations over Syria or not.”
Meanwhile, the US has moved quickly to contain an escalation of the situation, with a leading general saying the country would work to relaunch a “deconfliction” hotline established in 2015.
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Russia said Washington had failed to use the line – a vital incident-prevention tool – before targeting the plane near Raqqa.
Australia is part of the coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Iraq. In late 2015, it extended air operations into Syria on the US’ request.
It has six fighter jets based in the United Arab Emirates that strike targets in Syria and Iraq.
In September, Australia said it would widen the scope of targets in the air war against ISIL by allowing its pilots to strike support and logistics resources in Iraq and Syria.
Australia has conducted one of the highest number of air strikes in Syria and Iraq, according to Airwars, a Britain-based non-profit research group monitoring air strikes.