Last week in northern Syria, government fighter jets took off to bomb targets as they do most days. But for the first time in the conflict, they were met by two F-22 Raptor jets dispatched by the US Air Force — and turned away.
The difference between the bombing run last Thursday and almost every other was the target: This time, Syrian jets were dispatched to hit US-backed Kurdish forces in the eastern city of Hasaka who were battling pro-government militia.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the umbrella group to which it belongs, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are key US allies in the fight against the Islamic State group. US special forces are now operating on the ground alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces — an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters — in an advisory role across the Kurdish-majority northeastern part of Syria.
Dozens have died in the fighting, in what was the most serious confrontation between Kurdish forces and the Syrian government of the five-year-long civil war. Thousands fled the city during the battle, which appeared to have calmed on Tuesday as a tentative ceasefire was implemented.
While Syrian jets have been able to bomb hospitals and densely populated civilian areas across much of the country unchallenged by US airpower, this attack directly threatened American troops and an important ally.
US jets, in the area as part of the anti-ISIS international coalition, were scrambled again last Friday, as Syrian jets tried to enter the Hasaka area. The Syrian planes turned around without incident.
That day, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis gave a pointed warning to the Syrian government: “The Syrian regime would be well advised not to interfere with coalition forces or our partners.”
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, said that message had been relayed to Damascus via its Russian ally.
“We’ve informed the Russians where we’re at … [they] tell us they’ve informed the Syrians, and I’d just say that we will defend ourselves if we feel threatened,” he told CNN.
Since Saturday, no further government airstrikes have been reported in Hasaka. The US warning's effectiveness has led some to ask the question: Did the US just introduce a no-fly zone over Kurdish-held northeastern Syria?
The Pentagon’s press secretary, Peter Cook, insisted that it had not.
"It's not a 'no fly zone,'" he told reporters. Later, he added, "You can label it what you want."
"Our warning to the Syrians is the same that we've had for some time, that we're going to defend our forces and they would be advised not to fly in areas where our forces have been operating," Cook said.
Speaking to PRI on Monday, a YPG rebel commander who did not wish to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the Kurdish fighters had specifically requested a no-fly zone to protect them from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The American forces are on the ground, they are following the situation directly,” he said by phone. “We asked our partners to create a no-fly zone. They were very positive about that and accepted this request from our side. Since [Saturday] there have been no airstrikes on Hasaka.”
“We asked our partners [the US] to create a no-fly zone. They were very positive about that,” a YPG commander said.
On Friday, US jets came within a mile of Syrian planes, highlighting the precariousness of having US forces present amid a complex array of proxies, allies and enemies in Syria.
The Pentagon has insisted it would send aircraft again to defend its forces in the area, a promise that might well be tested in the near future.
Washington has demonstrated its willingness to protect its Kurdish allies in Syria at a time when various other forces are lining up against the US.
In recent weeks, neighboring Turkey — another US ally, but one that's bitterly opposed to Kurdish self-rule in Syria or elsewhere — has simultaneously hardened its position on Syrian Kurds and softened its stance toward Assad.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, Turkey has funded various rebel groups in the fight against Assad and insisted on his removal. More recently, it has placed higher importance on preventing the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region on its border.
Ankara fears that Kurdish success in Syria will fuel an already brutal urban conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — which founded the Kurdish force in Syria and maintains strong links.
In an effort to thwart gains made by the Kurdish-dominated SDF, Turkey is reportedly preparing to back a Syrian rebel attack on the ISIS-controlled town of Jarablus, which lies on the border.
The SDF is also planning to capture the town, and a victory there would see Kurdish-dominated forces come close to achieving a contiguous stretch of the Turkey-Syria border that frames their area of control.
Over the past few days, Turkish artillery has been targeting ISIS around the town, as well as SDF positions farther south, near Manbij, to slow the US-backed group’s advance. Two US allies are now racing to capture the town, setting up a potential conflict.