US, Russia agree to safety measures over Syria
October 20, 2015
WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia have agreed to safety measures to help avoid mid-air collisions as the two countries conduct air campaigns in the skies over Syria.
The agreement sets guidelines for safe distances between aircraft, radio frequencies for U.S. and Russian pilots to use in flight and a communication line on the ground between the two air operations, the Pentagon announced Tuesday. The agreement also applies to drones.
Russia’s involvement in Syria has escalated tensions with the United Sates and the NATO alliance. Russia has said its air campaign is intended to attack Islamic State targets. U.S. officials have argued Russian aircraft are targeting rebel forces fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime in a civil war that began in March 2011.
In the three weeks since Russia began airstrikes Sept. 30, a number of close calls between U.S. jets, drones and Russian aircraft drove the United States to complete negotiations with Russia.
“The Russians need to abide by these flight safety protocols, because we don’t want miscalculation and misunderstanding,” said Peter Cook, press secretary for the Pentagon.
However, Cook declined to provide the distance that aircraft should maintain in the sky. He also did not say what would happen if the Russians violated the terms of the agreement and flew too close to U.S or coalition aircraft.
“Our aircrews always have the right to defend themselves,” Cook said.
The agreement was signed as the United States announced it was adding A-10 close air support aircraft to Incirlik Air Base, which has been used since August to launch manned and unmanned airstrikes against Islamic State targets.
Three video conferences were held during the last three weeks between high-level U.S. and Russian defense officials to reach an agreement. The meetings were held as Russia rapidly built up Hmeymim Airbase at Latakia.
Since Russia’s first airstrikes, they have reported hitting targets in areas surrounding Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, according to the Russian Defense Ministry’s website. Since Sept. 30, U.S. and coalition aircraft have conducted 89 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.
The Pentagon emphasized the agreement does not mean the United States is cooperating with Russia in its Syrian air campaign.
The agreement “does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence sharing or any sharing of target information in Syria,” Cook said. It does “not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia's policy or actions in Syria.”
But Russia said it had hoped for "a more substantial agreement.” Russia requested closer interaction in aircraft shoot-downs and emergency landings and with search-and-rescue operations, according to a statement posted on the Russian Ministry of Defense website.