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World & Nation

U.S., Russia open talks to avoid conflict in the skies over Syria

Airstrikes in Syria

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

(Hadi Al-Abdallah / Associated Press)

Pentagon officials are set to open their first round of military-to-military talks with Russian counterparts Thursday to avoid conflicts between their air forces in the skies over Syria.

With jets from both countries actively carrying out airstrikes over Syria, the talks will address an urgent need to divvy up the airspace to avoid a potentially deadly accident, Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Otto told reporters Thursday.

“Any time you have an aircraft pointing at you that has air-to-air missiles, you’re concerned,” he said. “It’s almost like when you’re driving down the road and you see someone driving in your lane in the opposite direction – it immediately gets your attention.”

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According to the Pentagon, the Russians on Wednesday gave U.S. forces only an hour’s notice before launching their first round of airstrikes in Syria.  A Russian general delivered the message by showing up at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and telling defense officials there that the U.S. needed to clear airspace above Syria.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter called that move an “unprofessional drop-in.”

The military-to-military conversation would be the first talks that U.S. defense officials have held with the Russians in nearly two years. Talks on other topics stopped after the Russian annexation of Crimea and its continued involvement in the Ukrainian civil war.

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.

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It is unlikely that the Russians will be invited to participate in that center, Pentagon officials say, but talks could help inform the daily air plan.

The Russian airstrikes, now in their second day, are being carried out by fighter and attack jets flying from Bassel Assad International Airport in Syria’s western Latakia province.

The meeting with the Russians will be led on the U.S. side by Elissa Slotkin,  the acting assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, officials said.

For more on the U.S. military, follow @WJHenn 


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