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RAF war plane in ‘unprecedented’ engagement over Syria

The Royal Air Force has shot down what it says was a “terrorist drone” over southern Syria. The encounter marked the first air-to-air missile engagement of the UK’s operation against Islamic State in Syria.

An RAF Typhoon fighter shot down the drone on Tuesday near the Al-Tanf coalition airbase in southern Syria. A press release from the British Ministry of Defence described the drone as “small,” and said that a Typhoon pilot brought it down with an Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM).

The engagement was described as “unprecedented” by the ministry, as it marked the first operational air-to-air engagement conducted by an RAF Typhoon, and also the first RAF air-to-air missile firing during Operation SHADER – the codename given to the UK’s military campaign against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists in Syria. 

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Primarily an air campaign, Operation SHADER has been underway since 2014 and has also seen British special forces deployed to Syria and neighboring countries.

The Ministry of Defence did not say which group was responsible for launching the drone, merely stating that it was “hostile” and presented a “terrorist threat.” 

The downing of the drone was earlier reported by the Pentagon, with Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban saying that two drones were spotted, one of which left the area.

The encounter took place two months after Al-Tanf was hit with a barrage of rockets and drones, with reports suggesting the base was severely damaged. At the time, the US military blamed Iranian-backed Shia militias for the attack.

While IS has seen nearly all of its military gains since 2014 rolled back by Syrian, Russian, and Western intervention, some of its fighters remain active, and periodically clash with the numerous factions that oppose them. One such clash reportedly took place in eastern Syria this week when Kurdish forces – allied with the West – claimed to kill five IS fighters with the help of coalition air support.

While the UK’s mission concerns the destruction of IS, it has no diplomatic contact with the government of President Bashar Assad, whose military is also fighting the terrorists. The UK continues to accuse Assad of war crimes and atrocities, and has placed sanctions on his government while working with rebel groups who oppose his rule.

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