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U.S. and Russia still talking on Syria, despite Moscow's claims it cut off communications

 (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / Associated Press)
(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / Associated Press)

The U.S. and Russia are still talking on a communications hotline about aircraft movement in the crowded skies over Syria, despite Moscow’s claim Friday that it had pulled out of the link.

The Pentagon and the Russian military established the so-called deconfliction line after Russia entered Syria's multi-sided civil war in 2015, propping up its ally, President Bashar Assad.

The step was meant to ensure that the two countries' pilots would not mistakenly run into -- or fire on -- one another as they conducted daily bombing runs.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said hours after an overnight U.S. strike on a Syrian airfield that it was suspending the agreement.

However, a regularly scheduled morning call occurred Friday between a U.S. Air Force officer at a command center in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar and a Russian military officer, according to U.S. officials.

The Pentagon said it hopes the practice continues. “The Department of Defense maintains the desire for dialogue through the flight safety channel,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in statement. “It is to the benefit of all parties operating in the air over Syria to avoid accidents and miscalculation, and we hope the Russian Ministry of Defense comes to this conclusion as well.”

The two sides speak three times a week on the deconfliction line, officials said, but that frequency has picked up in recent months due to an increased tempo of fighting.

The talks, which occur over an insecure phone line and a commercial Google email account, have grown in importance as U.S. and Russian forces converge on the same contested towns, including Manbij and Al Bab in northern Syria, and Deir al-Zour in the east.

The communications have proved crucial in staving off an international incident in which U.S. warplanes might inadvertently hit Russian ground forces deployed alongside Syrian government troops, or Russian aircraft might strike U.S. troops aiding Syrian rebels.

U.S. warplanes have carried out thousands of airstrikes in Syria against the Sunni Muslim militants of Islamic State as part of a coalition that has also involved NATO and Arab states' aircraft. The coalition's strikes in Syria and in Iraq are coordinated each day by a U.S. command center in Qatar, where officials from dozens of countries are represented.

Russian aircraft have been conducting a separate air campaign to support the Assad government in the country's blood-soaked civil war, now in its seventh year. Russia began bombing Syrian rebel positions in September 2015.

U.S. intelligence officials are sifting through the bluster out of Moscow following the U.S. strikes on an airfield outside the central city of Homs, and are concerned that Russia's announced plan to cut off the coordination of air operations would make it harder for the U.S. and its allies to attack Islamic State.

U.S. military officials have also been keeping track of Russian aircraft flying near Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, where U.S.-backed forces are preparing to mount a major assault.

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