U.S. and Russia solidify air safety agreement over Syria

Smoke rises after airstrikes in Syria's Idlib province on Oct. 1, 2015.

Smoke rises after airstrikes in Syria’s Idlib province on Oct. 1, 2015.

(Hadi Al-Abdallah / Associated Press)

The Pentagon and Russian military have agreed on a list of rules designed to ensure the two countries’ pilots will not mistakenly run into -- or fire upon -- one another as they conduct daily bombing runs in the skies above Syria.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday that the U.S. military came to the agreement with the Russians after weeks of negotiations on how pilots could communicate with each other and other technical details to guard against an accident.

The agreement does not establish zones of cooperation in the two countries’ air attacks or include any sharing of intelligence and target information in Syria, Cook said.


“The discussions through which this [agreement] has developed do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia’s policy or actions in Syria,” he said. “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.”

Until an Oct. 1 video conference to discuss the agreement, talks between the two countries’ militaries had stopped due to the Russian annexation of Crimea last year and its continued involvement in the Ukrainian civil war.

The Pentagon has been uneasy about such talks ever since the Russians secretly recorded the first round and used the recordings as propaganda on state-run media. Pentagon officials also have guarded against giving any impression that they are coordinating with the Russians.

Cook said specifics of the agreement would not be publicly disclosed at the request of the Russians.

Currently, pilots belonging to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State have been instructed to stay at least 20 miles away from Russian aircraft after they’re detected on cockpit radar screens.

U.S. planes have carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria as part of a coalition that involves NATO and Arab air forces. 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 so each knows where the other is operating.

Russian aircraft have been conducting a separate air campaign to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in the 4½-year civil war and began bombing Syrian rebel positions Sept. 30.

The U.S. has said Russian aircraft have flown dangerously close to drones on reconnaissance missions, but there have not been close calls with manned aircraft. Should that happen, the two countries now have a way to address it, Cook said.

“Russians need to abide by these flight safety protocols that they’ve now agreed to, because we don’t want miscalculation and misunderstanding,” he said.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov hailed the agreement, according to the Russian state-owned TASS news agency.

“We regard the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the Russian Defense Ministry and the U.S. Defense Department on the prevention of incidents and ensuring air flight safety in the course of the operation in the Syrian Arab Republic as a positive step,” he said. “Its conclusion shows the high potential of cooperation between Russia and the USA, not least in the fight against terrorism, which we are willing to expand and deepen.”

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