U.S., Russia Sign Agreement to Regulate All Flights Over Syria

russia-airstrikes

Russia and the United States signed an agreement Tuesday that regulates all aircraft and drone flights over Syria, the defense departments of both countries announced.

At a Pentagon briefing, Peter Cook, the department’s press secretary, said the agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, established safety protocols requiring the Russians and the United States-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria to maintain professional airmanship at all times, use specific communication frequencies and establish a communication line on the ground.

Anatoly I. Antonov, the Russian deputy defense minister, said in a statement, “The memorandum contains a set of rules and restrictions aimed at preventing incidents between the Russian and U.S. aviation.” He did not go into details, but said it had “important practical significance.”

The coalition has been bombing Islamic State positions in Syria since September 2014, so American officials were alarmed when Russia, with little warning, began launching its own airstrikes in Syria on behalf of its ally three weeks ago. Russia made no effort to coordinate the strikes with American air operations in the region, the United States has said.

Last week, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that it had established a hotline with Israel to coordinate on Syria flights.

There have been several close calls above Syria. On two occasions, Russian aircraft flew within 1,500 feet and 500 feet of American warplanes, although not in a threatening manner. Such incidents underscore the need for such an agreement, Mr. Cook said.

“What it says to me is that the 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.

The protocols call for aircraft to maintain a “safe distance” from one another, Mr. Cook said, refusing to elaborate on what that distance is but saying coalition aircrews know how close is too close. “There’s no need for them to have an encounter if everyone’s abiding by these rules,” he said.

The text of the memo was not released. Mr. Cook said the Russians had requested that it not be shared. He declined to elaborate on the ground communication line, including where exactly it would be located, but described it as a backup resource to “have real-time conversations” in case something went wrong with the air communications.

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SOURCE: NEIL MacFARQUHAR 
The New York Times