Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Jordanian Pilot Captured by Islamic State After Warplane Crashes in Syria

IS Fighters with Captured Pilot
Islamic State militants captured a Jordanian pilot after his plane went down during operations by the U.S.-led coalition against the group on Wednesday in northeastern Syria, Jordan’s military said. The Raqqa Media Center, which is sanctioned by Islamic State, claimed the group shot the plane down with antiaircraft guns and the pilot ejected near the city of Raqqa—the capital of a province by the same name that is the seat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

However coalition officials said there was no indication the Jordanian fighter plane was shot down by Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. A U.S. official said it was more likely that a mechanical problem, pilot error or weather-related mishap caused a crash.

Both the U.S. and Jordanian governments have special operations teams in the region to help rescue pilots. But officials said there were early indications that the pilot didn't have a chance to try to evade militants on the ground.

“We would have gone in and picked him up. Those capabilities are in place. But there was very little time,” a coalition official said. 

U.S. officials said they were extremely worried about the pilot’s fate.

“This is tragic, this is horrible,” said a U.S. defense official. “All of us are very familiar with ISIL’s barbarity.”

The Jordanian plane is the first coalition aircraft to crash in Iraq or Syria since the current operation began. Since August, the U.S. and its coalition partners have conducted nearly 590 strikes in Iraq and since September they’ve conducted more than 830 strikes in Syria.

The Raqqa Media Center posted photos purporting to show the captured pilot, surrounded by Islamic State fighters. One shows the pilot in his underwear carried through water by three armed men. Another shows about a dozen armed men, most of them masked, surrounding the captive.

The center said the plane went down in the village of Hamrat Ghanam, southeast of Raqqa city. 

“Jordan holds the organization [Islamic State] and those who back it responsible for the pilot’s safety and well-being,” said a Jordanian military statement carried by state-controlled news agency Petra. 

The warplane was targeting Islamic State’s “hide-outs” when it came down, the Jordanian military said. The U.S. command overseeing the air operations in Iraq and Syria said the U.S. and partner nations hit a weapons stockpile near Raqqa, one of 10 strikes conducted on Dec. 24 in Syria.

Petra also posted a photo of the pilot and identified him as Muath al-Kasasbah, a 26-year-old first lieutenant.

There was no immediate word on whether anyone else from the U.S.-led coalition was involved in the incident. 

The crash of the plane was monitored by the U.S.-run Combined Air Operation Center in Qatar. But a coalition official said there was little time to scramble a rescue operation for the pilot before he was captured by militant forces. 

The U.S. has V-22 Ospreys and other assets positioned around the region to rescue downed pilots. 

While coalition officials say early reports indicate the plane wasn't shot down, U.S. officials said even if it later turns out the plane was taken down it is unlikely that U.S.-made weapons were used. 

While Islamic State militants have stolen armored vehicles from Iraqi forces, the U.S. never provided Iraq with sophisticated air defense weaponry. 

Islamic State has seized surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft systems—both capable of bringing down planes flying at low altitude—when they captured military bases in Iraq and Syria.

But U.S. officials said the group hasn't demonstrated ability to use those weapons effectively against high-flying aircraft.

The U.S. has provided antitank TOW missiles to moderate rebels, but those weapons are difficult, if not nearly impossible, to use against high-flying fighter jets. A .50 caliber weapon or even a rocket-propelled grenade can down a low flying plane. But typically coalition fighter jets aren't flying low over Iraq or Syria.

Jordan is one of Washington’s key allies in the Middle East. It was among the Arab countries that joined the U.S.-led coalition ’s airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, which began in September.

Most of the missions that Jordan and other Arab allies have been flying over Syria are against set, prepositioned targets such as the weapons stockpile struck in Raqqa on Wednesday, U.S. officials said.

Far fewer of their missions are against so-called “dynamic targets” where planes hunt for moving groups of Islamic State militants or vehicles. The Jordanians only hunt moving targets during the day and when weather conditions are near ideal, the officials said.

Each of the coalition countries has been flying by themselves, without escort by planes from U.S. or other partner nations, the officials said.

—Felicia Schwartz and Suha Ma’ayeh contributed to this article.

 The Wall Street Journal