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Thu 19 Mar 2015 12:29 PM

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Downing of US drone suggests Syria imposing red lines on air war

Western Syria seen of vital importance to Damascus

Downing of US drone suggests Syria imposing red lines on air war
(Getty Images - for illustrative purpose only)

After allowing
the United States to use its air space to bomb ISIL fighters for six months,
the Syrian army appears to have imposed a "red line" by shooting down
a US drone over territory of critical importance to Damascus.

The US military
has said it lost contact with one of its drones over northwest Syria but has
not given the cause of the incident over Latakia province - part of the western
region of Syria where Damascus has been consolidating state control.

Two US officials,
speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the Predator drone
was likely shot down, although the investigation continues.

A Syrian army
source said the aircraft was shot down over government-held territory in an
area free from ISIL, the jihadist group that has been facing near daily
bombardment by US-led warplanes on the other side of the country.

"Our air
defence brought it down with a rocket," the military source told Reuters.
"The plane was American-made, was brought down coming from the sea, and
the Syrian air defence was the one that brought it down," he added.

"The whole
region is under state control."

Four years into
Syria's civil war, Washington still says President Bashar Al Assad has no
future in Syria, despite leading an air campaign against jihadist groups that
are his most powerful foes on the ground.

Until now,
Syria is not known to have fired on US aircraft. The United States says its air
strikes are not coordinated with Damascus but Syria says it receives word of them
through mutual friends in Iraq.

The drone was
shot down about 10 km (6 miles) north of the coastal city of Latakia, according
to the military source and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which
tracks the war using sources on the ground.

The area is far
from the northern and eastern parts of Syria where US and allied warplanes have
been launching near daily air strikes against ISIL positions to roll back the
group that has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq.

Damascus has
been consolidating its grip over western Syria, including the Mediterranean
coast, even as it has lost control over wide areas of the north and east. The
coastal region includes a Russian naval base in Tartous.

The United
States has previously described Syrian air defences as "passive,"
meaning they have not engaged the US-led coalition's aircraft as American and
other planes carry out strikes against militants.

The US air
strikes have not targeted Syrian military forces or military infrastructure.

US officials
have not provided word on the drone's mission, although the fact it was unarmed
suggests it was carrying out intelligence collection. Tuesday's incident took
place sometime around 7:40 pm in Syria, when officials said the United States
lost contact with the unarmed MQ-1 Predator aircraft.

America wanted to send a message - be it for reasons of spying or discovering
points of strength or weakness in the Syrian defences - I believe the Syrian
response confirmed that violations of Syrian air space are forbidden," said
Salim Harbba, a Damascus-based strategic analyst.

In addition to
the regular strikes against ISIL, US aircraft have also occasionally targeted a
separate jihadist group, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, in northwestern
Syria, closer to the area of Tuesday's incident.

The Nusra
Front, which shares much of ISIL's militant Sunni Islamist ideology but does
not recognise its legitimacy, has recently fought with the Syrian military and
allied militias in northern Latakia province.

Rami Abdulrahman,
who runs the Observatory, said the US drone may have been scouting for Al Qaeda-linked

have been increased battles in the Latakia area," he said.

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