Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford Explains the Legal Justification for Shooting Down a Syrian Jet

Susan Jones | June 20, 2017 | 5:33am EDT
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Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a National Press Club luncheon on Monday, June 19, 2017. (Photo by Marshall H. Cohen/National Press Club website)

( – “What's the legal justification for targeting Syrian government forces?” a reporter asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Monday.

“Yeah, we -- we are there and have legal justification and the authorization of use of military force,” Dunford responded. “We are prosecuting a campaign against ISIS and Al Qaida in Syria.”

For the first time, a U.S. fighter plane on Sunday shot down a Syrian aircraft, after the Assad regime’s Su-22 dropped bombs close to U.S.-backed rebels operating near the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

In retaliation, Syria’s ally Russia said it was shutting down a deconfliction channel it established with the United States to avoid the accidental targeting of each other’s planes and troops in Syria. Russia’s defense ministry also said Russia would shoot down any coalition aircraft, including drones, flying over Syria.

The United States military is helping Iraqi troops fight ISIS in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. But no such invitation has been issued by Syria, a sovereign nation that is working with Russia and Iran to defend the Assad regime.

Dunford told a gathering at the National Press Club on Monday that the U.S. is still relying on a 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) issued after 9/11 and modified in 2002.

“What I have said is that we have all the legal authority that we need right now to prosecute Al Qaida, ISIS, other affiliated groups,” Dunford said. “But my recommendation to the Congress was that they pass an authorization of use of military force.

“And I thought one of the more important things is that our men and women that are in harm's way would see a clear and unmistakable support from the American people through their Congress. That -- that's what I believe, right now, would be -- would be very positive if -- if Congress would pass an authorization for use of military force."

Dunford said he’s precluded by law from lobbying Congress to pass a new AUMF, but when he is asked about a new AUMF at congressional hearings, “I’m certainly able to answer that question.”

Dunford said the U.S. shootdown of a Syrian jet on Sunday was a defensive move:

“I think it’s important to point out that the incident that took place this weekend followed a combined arms movement of pro-regime forces. Subsequent, SU (Syrian) aircraft flew into the area. We made every effort to warn those individuals not to come any closer. And then the commander made a judgment that there was a threat to the forces that we were supporting, and took action.

“We've -- the only actions that we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria -- and there have been two specific incidents -- have been in self-defense. And we've communicated that clearly.”

Dunford also said the United States is working to restore the deconfliction channel it has with Russia to avoid mid-air shootdowns.

For the last eight months, we worked on deconfliction with the Russian Federation and pro-regime forces through the Russians. The purpose was to make sure that our aircrews were safe, to make sure our personnel on the ground were safe, and to make sure we could prosecute the defeat-ISIS campaign in Syria, which is the reason why we're in Syria.

That has worked very well over the past eight months. And we have worked through a number of issues with the Russian Federation. We have an effective link between our…operations center in Qatar and the Russian Federation on the ground in Syria. That link is -- is still ongoing here this morning. As -- when I left the building this morning, we're still been communicating over the last few hours.

I, like you, saw in the open source some reporting from Moscow which I -- I won't address right now. I will just tell you that we'll work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to reestablish deconfliction.

The Russian Federation has indicated that their purpose in Syria, like ours, is -- is to defeat ISIS. And we'll see if that's true here in the coming hours, because all of our operations in and around Raqqah and southern Syria are designed specifically to get after ISIS.

And -- and we have agreed in the past -- that as we and the -- and the Russian Federation and pro-regime forces -- that operations that the coalition was conducting in Syria were effectively degrading ISIS' capability. And we'll work to restore that deconfliction chain in the next few hours.

A reporter asked Dunford if he’s confident that U.S. planes won’t be shot down:


“I'm confident that -- that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation operations center. And I'm also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves,” Dunford replied.

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