Russia Demands Explanation After Newspaper Reports British Planes Have Permission to Shoot Down Russian Jets

By Patrick Goodenough | October 12, 2015 | 4:27am EDT
‘RAF ready to shoot down Russian aircraft over Syria’ was the headline on a Sunday Times report published on October 11. (Image: Russian Embassy/Twitter)

( – Russia’s ambassador to Britain said he has requested an urgent explanation from the British government after a media report Sunday said that British pilots flying anti-ISIS missions have been given permission to shoot down Russian aircraft if threatened.

Calling the report in the London Sunday Times “worrying,” Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko said in a statement issued by the embassy, “We have urgently requested explanations from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”

The newspaper quoted defense sources as saying that Royal Air Force Tornados, up until now armed with satellite-guided bombs for use in the anti-ISIS mission, will be equipped also with air-to-air missiles in case threatened by Russian warplanes that are operating in the area.

“The first thing a British pilot will do is to try to avoid a situation where an air-to-air attack is likely to occur – you avoid an area if there is Russian activity,” a source from Britain’s defense Permanent Joint Headquarters in north London told the paper.

“But if a pilot is fired on or believes he is about to be fired on, he can defend himself,” the source said. “We now have a situation where a single pilot, irrespective of nationality, can have a strategic impact on future events.”

Russia launched airstrikes in Syria on September 30, in a campaign ostensibly targeting ISIS but seen as primarily designed to prop up the Assad regime.

U.S. officials have expressed concern about the possibilities of accidental collision or other mishap in airspace that is now being used by Russian warplanes as well as those of the U.S.-led coalition.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday the U.S. military will continue to hold “basic technical discussions [with the Russians] on safety procedures for our pilots over Syria.”

Britain is part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, although up to now RAF airstrikes have been limited to targets inside Iraq. Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to seek parliamentary approval within weeks to extend the operation to Syria, however.

Noting that the British currently aren’t even operating in Syrian airspace, and that Russian aircraft are not now in Iraqi skies, Yakovenko questioned the motivation of the defense leak to the Sunday Times.

“[T]he very premise of a potential conflict of U.K. and Russian combat aircraft over Iraq is incomprehensible,” he said. “It is known that Russian Air Force does not take part in strikes against ISIS targets in the said country [Iraq]. At the same time, RAF does not participate in the anti-ISIS coalition strikes in Syria. The question arises, what is the goal of such a provocative media leak? Whose morale are they meant to raise?”

Getting support from the House of Commons to expand the RAF mission to Syria may be an uphill battle for Cameron, who will need some support from opposition Labor Party lawmakers to win the vote.

Labor’s new left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, is opposed to airstrikes against ISIS in all circumstances, although several dozen Labor MPs are reported to take a different view.

Russia maintains that its mission in Syria is legal since it is there at the invitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – whereas, it says, the U.S.-coalition are operating in Syria in violation of that country’s sovereignty.

The situation is different in Iraq, as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has requested the coalition’s help in the fight against the ISIS jihadists who control territory in both Iraq and Syria.

According to U.S. Central Command, coalition partners that have joined the U.S. in carrying out airstrikes against ISIS are:

--In Iraq:  Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Jordan and the Netherlands;

--In Syria: Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.

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