Theresa May plays down risk of clash with Russian forces in Syria

Theresa May has played down suggestions RAF pilots could be at risk after Russia warned it would track warplanes from the US-led coalition in Syria as potential targets a day after the US military shot down a Syrian air force jet.

Theresa May with Russian president Vladimir Putin
Theresa May with Russian president Vladimir Putin

The Prime Minister pointed to "deconfliction arrangements" with Moscow, which are designed to prevent mid-air incidents between coalition and Russian planes operating in the crowded airspace over Syria.

Russia has been providing air cover for Syrian president Bashar Assad since 2015 while the coalition has been bombing Islamic State (IS) targets since 2014, sometimes alongside regime forces.

In a sign of the deepening complexity of the brutal civil war, t he US air force downed a Syrian Su-22 plane on Sunday after it dropped bombs near the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting IS.

In response, Russia's defence ministry said it would suspend coordination with the US over deconfliction zones and begin tracking coalition jets operating in Assad-held areas west of the Euphrates river.

At a press conference in Downing Street, Mrs May was asked whether she would consider grounding RAF planes in response, although Russia has stressed it would not shoot down coalition planes and instead track them to ensure they do not pose a threat.

The Prime Minister said: "There are deconfliction arrangements in place already in relation to activity that takes place over the skies of Syria and those deconfliction arrangements will continue."

A Government spokesman added: "Air operations continue and deconfliction measures are ongoing. We call on Russia to continue to use these measures.

"We want all parties to focus on the fight against Daesh (IS) in Iraq and Syria."