The United States has responded to increased Russian air defenses in a key area of Syria by grounding all manned flights that have supported rebels there fighting ISIS.
The latest Russian deployments, made without any advance notice to the U.S., have disrupted the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to support Syrian rebel forces fighting against the Islamic State near the Turkey-Syria border, just west of the Euphrates River, several Obama administration and U.S. defense officials told us. This crucial part of the battlefield, known inside the military as Box 4, is where a number of groups have been fighting the Islamic State for control, until recently with overhead support from U.S. fighter jets. But earlier this month, Moscow deployed an SA-17 advanced air defense system near the area and began "painting" U.S. planes, targeting them with radar in what U.S. officials said was a direct and dangerous provocation. The Pentagon halted all manned flights, although U.S. drones are still flying in the area. Russia then began bombing the rebels the U.S. had been supporting.
"The increasing number of Russian-supplied advanced air defense systems in Syria, including SA-17s, is another example that Russia and the regime seek to complicate the global counter-Daesh coalition’s air campaign," Maj. Tim Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force Central Command, stated, using an alternate name for ISIS.
The development has reportedly sparked debate in the Obama administration over how to further respond. Secretary of State John Kerry brought the issue up during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday, according to Smith.
Following the same meeting with Putin, Kerry declared that the Obama administration would not seek a "regime change" in Syria, an apparent reversal of repeated demands that President Bashar al-Assad be removed from power.
The move indicated that the U.S. has agreed to demands from Russia, a significant Assad ally, to allow the Syrian people to decide the fate of the country’s leadership.
At the Kremlin Tuesday, Kerry described himself as "grateful for President Putin" and also said that the U.S. and Russia "see Syria fundamentally very similarly."
Since Russian began launching airstrikes in Syria in September with the alleged goal of combating ISIS, U.S. officials have suspected that Moscow has deliberately targeted CIA-backed rebels in a challenge to President Obama’s Syria policy.