U.S. and Russian aircraft have flown dangerously close several times in the skies over northwest Syria, according to U.S. officials, as the air war has intensified in recent weeks.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the U.S. Air Force commander in the Middle East, said Friday that warplanes had unintended close calls as they headed to or from bombing targets near the Turkish border.
“It’s a compressed environment for us all to operate in,” Harrigian told reporters. “You have to be out there with your head on a swivel.”
On Oct. 17, Harrigian said, a Russian fighter jet and a U.S. warplane on night operations passed each other less than half a mile apart.
It was close enough that the American pilot felt the jet wash, or turbulence, from the unintentional flyby, he said.
Russian officials later told the U.S. military air operations center in Qatar that their pilot did not see the American plane on his radar, Harrigian said.
The mid-air incidents come as tensions between Washington and Moscow have escalated sharply over Syria.
The two nations traded bitter accusations this week after airstrikes repeatedly hit a school in the rebel-held village of Hass in Idlib province, killing 20 children.
Idlib is regularly targeted by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. The Obama administration, France and international monitors said Syrian or Russian planes carried out Wednesday’s attack, but Moscow denied conducting air operations in the area.
“If deliberate, this attack may amount to a war crime,” the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry has called for an “appropriate investigation” of whether Russia and Syria have committed war crimes for bombing civilians and medical facilities in the besieged city of Aleppo.
Russia and Syria claim to be honoring a “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo and other parts of western Syria to allow evacuation of the wounded and to deliver medical and food aid.
But Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was sharply critical of the Russian effort.
“You don’t get congratulations and get credit for not committing war crimes for a day or a week,” she said Wednesday at the U.N.
On Tuesday, National Intelligence Director James Clapper warned that Russia could shoot down a U.S. warplane with the ground-to-air defense system it has built in Syria.
“I wouldn’t put it past them to shoot down an American aircraft if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground,” Clapper said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, indicated on a visit to the region this week that he is willing to increase military-to-military talks with Russia to prevent a mid-air collision or a potential shoot-down.
The Pentagon and Russian military established a communications hot line after Russia entered the war in 2015. The two sides speak three times a week on the so-called deconfliction calls, officials said.
There was hope of additional communications when the U.S. and Russian diplomats announced a temporary Syrian ceasefire agreement last month.
But the truce effort quickly collapsed, and both sides accused the other of bad faith, after a U.N. aid convoy was bombed and a U.S. airstrike hit a Syrian army base.
U.S. officials denied they had deliberately targeted Syrian troops. They said the pilots believed they were bombing Islamic State.
Wire services contributed to this story.