In the first such incident since the U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes against Islamic State extremists last September in Syria, the Syrian government said Tuesday that its air defense system had shot down a U.S. surveillance drone near the northern city of Latakia.
U.S. officials in Washington confirmed that controllers had lost contact with an unarmed drone in northwestern Syria but said they did not know what had happened to it. “At this time, we have no information to corroborate press reports that the aircraft was shot down,” the Pentagon said in a statement attributed to a “defense official.”
Turkish military officials said the drone had been launched from the giant U.S. air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey and was one of four unarmed Predator drones based there.
The official Syrian news agency called the drone a “hostile U.S. surveillance plane,” and the major question about the incident is whether its controllers had sent it intentionally over northwest Syria, an area far from Islamic State strongholds in eastern Syria, or if it had strayed off course en route to or from Incirlik.
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Syria has allowed U.S., Jordanian and Gulf state aircraft, including drones, to cross into its territory to bomb Islamic State targets since Sept. 23; until Tuesday, is not known to have used its advanced Russian-supplied air defense system against them. Although the U.S. has said it has not cleared flights with Syria, Syrian President Bashar Assad recently told an interviewer that Iraqi officials have kept him briefed on bombing plans.
One Syrian who regularly sees Assad told McClatchy recently that Iraqi intelligence officials brief the Syrian government daily on plans for airstrikes planned that day. But the reported location of the downing, Latakia province, which abuts the Mediterranean, is far from the locations where the Islamic State is known to have been engaged in combat recently.
The U.S. has long sought Turkish permission to base advanced fighter aircraft at Incirlik to mount airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, but the Turkish government has refused on the grounds that the Obama administration does not have a strategy for ending the war in Syria.
But Turkey is inching closer to granting that permission. Flights into Syria and Iran by unarmed Predators have been operating for months out of Incirlik, and last week, the U.S. reached a tentative accord with the Turkish military to station two Predators armed with Hellfire missiles at the base, Turkish officials said.
But the accord, reached during a visit by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, still has to be approved by the Turkish government.
Roy Gutman in Cairo contributed to this report.