WASHINGTON — Two US fighter pilots have told of a high-stakes encounter over northern Syria, when they stealthily shadowed a pair of Syrian regime jets and were prepared to shoot them down.
The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq last week scrambled fighters to intercept Syrian jets targeting Kurdish forces working with US advisers near the northeastern city of Hasakeh.
On August 19, a pair of US F-22s raced toward two Syrian Su-24 fighters that had flown into the region.
The Americans’ mission was to determine if the Syrian planes were going to target coalition ground forces and — if necessary — shoot them down.
“I followed him around for all three of his loops,” one of the US pilots, an Air Force major, told USA Today in a story Friday.
“He didn’t appear to have any idea I was there.”
The pilots said they got to within 2,000 feet (600 meters) of the Syrian jets. F-22s are stealth fighters and pilots are trained to avoid being seen.
The pilot of the second US jet, a captain, said he tried to hail the Syrians on a common radio frequency but got no response.
In the coalition flight control center in Qatar, Major General Jay Silveria told USA Today he was ready to tell the pilots to fire on the Syrian planes if they threatened coalition forces.
“I wouldn’t have hesitated,” Silveria said.
“All I needed at that point to shoot them down was a report from the ground that they were being attacked … We were in a perfect position to execute that with some pretty advanced weaponry.”
In the end, the Syrian jets left and appeared not to have been armed.
Officials told USA Today it was not clear the Syrian jets even knew they had been trailed.
A shoot-down would have marked a serious escalation in Syria’s bloody conflict.
Though the US-led coalition is fighting IS in the ruined country, it has not waded into conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia, which supports Assad, has for the past year been bombing rebel groups and sometimes IS.