Islamic State militants shot down a Syrian Air Force plane over the city of Raqqa in the north of the country Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. This is the first time Islamic State, or ISIS, forces have shown the ability to shoot down a fast-moving military jet -- and that could pose a danger for the U.S. and coalition forces using the same type of plane to bomb ISIS targets.
While it has not yet been officially confirmed how ISIS shot the aircraft down, it’s feared the group may have obtained the ability to shoot down jets with missiles, which could make the U.S. mission in the country more difficult.
"U.S. and coalition air forces should keep in mind these anti-air capabilities of the IS and take them out as quickly as possible," said Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security. "Otherwise, U.S. can use higher-altitude strikes against IS until such time that IS anti-air capability is destroyed."
The report said the aircraft crashed into a house in the Euphrates Valley, causing deaths and injuries on the ground. A video allegedly showing the aftermath of the crash appeared on Twitter.
Cohen said the aircraft was likely a Russian-built Sukhoi hit by anti-aircraft fire, based on initial reports. "This assumes a low altitude for the attacking Syrian planes," Cohen said. The Syrian military is equipped with Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack planes, among other Russian-supplied aircraft.
“It is the first aircraft shot down since the regime launched airstrikes against the jihadists in July following their declaration of a caliphate in late June," the human rights group based in London said.
Though it’s not the first Syrian military aircraft to be shot down during the civil war, it is the first by ISIS and the first since President Bahar Assad’s regime decided to increase its air campaign against the Islamic militants.
Legitimate concerns have been raised over ISIS’ ability after militants ransacked Syrian military bases and Iraqi facilities full of American military hardware in the city of Mosul. However, it was said at the time a flexible and largely mobile force such as ISIS would not take the burden of large, technical equipment that would slow fighters down as they continued to expand their newly declared Islamic State.
The likelihood is, given how the Syrian air force targets rebels -- typically with "dumb" unguided munitions and from low altitude -- the aircraft was low and relatively slow and was hit by a shoulder-fired missile, or possibly a rocket-propelled grenade. ISIS is not known to possess anything like the BUK missile launcher that hit Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July. Airplanes flying at altitudes over 15,000 feet, above the range of shoulder-fired missiles -- which is where U.S. and coalition jets often fly when hitting ISIS -- would be relatively safe.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said the U.S.-led air assault would target control structures, logistics capabilities and infrastructure. It’s also unlikely the U.S. will launch low-flying attacks against ISIS to avoid losing aircraft or worst still, pilots, in the country.