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U.S., Russia sign Syria air safety deal but keep quarreling over war aims

A Syrian army tank fired during fighting in Jobar near Damascus last week after the Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, launched an offensive.
A Syrian army tank fired during fighting in Jobar near Damascus last week after the Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, launched an offensive. AP

American and Russian senior military officials signed an agreement Tuesday spelling out safety rules their nations’ aircraft are to follow in the contested skies over Syria, but the two governments continued to snipe at each other’s goals in the Middle East country.

Pentagon officials said the accord was a narrow, technical “memorandum of understanding” that in no way signals U.S. approval of the new Russian air campaign to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled army.

“We don’t agree with what they’re doing,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said of the Russian airstrikes in Syria that began three weeks ago. “And that has not changed. We can agree, on this limited basis, to try and promote the safety of our air crews over Syria.”

Kremlin leaders, for their part, said that Pentagon negotiators had rejected opportunities to share intelligence, exchange targeting information and take other more robust steps to attack Islamic State militants from the air in Syria.

“The Russian side was seeking a more substantial agreement,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement. “That is why a number of specific proposals aimed at deepening cooperation between the Russian and U.S. militaries in countering international terrorism were put forward.”

In addition to Russian and American aircraft, the accord covers the planes of eight other countries that have joined the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria: France, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. More than 90 percent of the raids have been conducted by American bombers.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that most of the Russian airstrikes since Sept. 30 have not targeted the Islamic State or other radical Muslim groups, but rather moderate opposition forces that are fighting the Assad government and are backed by the United States.

In the last two weeks, there have been what Cook described as “a handful of incidents” when American and Russian aircraft flew as close as 500 feet to each other. Pentagon officials first expressed concern two weeks ago when a Russian bomber flew within 20 miles of a U.S. jet.

While that distance seems far enough for safe passage, an American F-16 and a Russian Tu-95 hurtling toward each other at more than 500 miles an hour could traverse 20 miles in 60 seconds or less.

The agreement signed Tuesday covers both piloted planes and unmanned surveillance drones. The Pentagon has complained in recent weeks that Russian planes have flown close to U.S. drones in apparent attempts to get close-up views of their composition and equipment.

Our military forces in Syria are operating at the request of the legitimate authorities of that country.

Russian Defense Ministry

While cooperating in the name of air safety, Washington and Moscow continued to criticize the legitimacy of each other’s air campaigns in Syria.

Stressing that the aviation protocols “do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia’s policy or actions in Syria,” Cook added: “In fact, far from it, we continue to believe that Russia’s strategy in Syria is counterproductive and their support for the Assad regime will only make Syria’s civil war worse.”

The rhetoric from Moscow was just as dismissive.

“The signing of the document in no way changes the Russian principled position,” the Defense Ministry said. “Our military forces in Syria are operating at the request of the legitimate authorities of that country, while the projection of force by the United States and the counter-ISIL (a common acronym for the Islamic State) coalition led by Washington on the territory of Syria is without the consent of Damascus and, in the absence of any relevant U.N. Security Council resolution, represents negligence of international law.”

The Kremlin provided the full Russian-language title of the agreement: “A Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and the Department of Defense of the United States of American on the Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents in the Course of Operations in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The possibility of air conflict escalating over Syria is far from just theoretical.

Turkey has scrambled fighter jets at least twice this month in response to Russian planes that it said had crossed or come close to its border with Syria. And Turkey on Monday said it had shot down an unidentified drone after it flew along the border.

Analysts said the drone was Russian, but the Russian Defense Ministry denied that claim.

“If it was a (piloted) plane, we’d do the same,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday. “Our rules of engagement are known. Whoever violates our borders, we will give them the necessary answer."

60 The number of Islamist targets the Russian Defense Ministry said its planes struck in 24 hours from Monday to Tuesday.

For all the differences between Washington and Moscow, their air accord includes some sweeping provisions that will see the American and Russian militaries cooperating more closely than at any time since they were allied against Nazi Germany in World War II.

Among the accord’s provisions, specific radio frequencies will be maintained by both sides so that American and Russian pilots can communicate directly with one another.

Should those communications fail to prevent a possible conflict or other potentially dangerous situation, a special phone line will be set up on the ground for military leaders from the two countries to have urgent conversations.

Cook stopped short of likening the new phone line to the two countries’ existing “nuclear hotline,” which was established Aug. 30, 1963, at the urging of President John F. Kennedy after Moscow and Washington narrowly averted nuclear warfare during the Cuban Missile Crisis 10 months earlier.

“We have a line of communication on the ground that serves as a backup and provides the opportunity to have real-time conversations if necessary,” Cook said.

Asked whether American pilots would have the right to fire at Russian aircraft that violate the new air protocols, Cook declined to respond directly.

“Our air crews always have the right to defend themselves,” he said.

He quickly added: “Our hope, with the memorandum of understanding, is that the risk of any sort of incident in the air over Syria is reduced, at a minimum, and hopefully eliminated.”

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