US, Russia to hold talks on avoiding close air encounters

A child receiving treatment at a field hospital following government air strikes on a popular market in a rebel stronghold east of Damascus on Tuesday.
A child receiving treatment at a field hospital following government air strikes on a popular market in a rebel stronghold east of Damascus on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Move comes after their warplanes came within sight of each other during air strikes in Syria on Saturday

BEIRUT • The United States and Russia were to hold new talks yesterday on avoiding incidents in the skies of Syria, as regime forces launched heavy attacks against rebels near Damascus.

Fighting was also reported in the northern city of Aleppo, where militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were making advances against other rebel fighters.

The US-Russia military talks come after the Pentagon said American and Russian planes had come within kilometres of each other on Saturday, making visual contact as the two powers wage separate air wars over Syria.

Russia launched air strikes over Syria on Sept 30, raising fears of accidental run-ins with the US-led coalition that has been bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year.

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said the talks between the US and Russian militaries would aim to ensure Moscow follows "basic safety procedures" over Syria.

Russia's intervention has raised the stakes in the Syrian conflict, which has left more than 245,000 dead and forced millions from their homes since March 2011. Moscow insists it is targeting ISIS... But Washington and its allies accuse Moscow of targeting moderate Western-backed rebels.

"Even as we continue to disagree on Syria policy, we should be able to at least agree on making sure our airmen are as safe as possible," Mr Carter said in Boston after talks with his Australian counterpart.

Colonel Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the coalition, told reporters that Saturday's incident saw coalition and Russian planes just "miles apart" over Syria.

"Visual identification took place. All pilots conducted themselves appropriately and everyone went about their business," he said.

"But this is dangerous, right?"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed yesterday that the US had declined to host a higher-ranking Kremlin delegation on Syria, led by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. "We have been told that they can't send a delegation to Moscow and they can't host a delegation in Washington either," Mr Lavrov told Parliament .

Proposing the talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday expressed some of his strongest criticisms yet of Washington's handling of the Syrian crisis. "I believe some of our partners simply have mush for brains," he said.

Russia's intervention has raised the stakes in the Syrian conflict, which has left more than 245,000 dead and forced millions from their homes since March 2011.

Moscow insists it is targeting ISIS, which has emerged as the pre-eminent militant group during the conflict and seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.

But Washington and its allies accuse Moscow of targeting moderate Western-backed rebels and seeking to prop up President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time Russian ally.

The regime launched heavy attacks including air raids yesterday in a bid to dislodge insurgents entrenched on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, a military source said.

"The army began a military operation this morning with the aim of expanding a security zone around areas controlled" by the government, the source said. "It began in Jobar with limited, precise and effective operations against lines of defence used by armed groups to observe the rest of the capital."

The Jobar neighbourhood, in eastern Damascus, has been a battleground for more than two years. Nearly all of its pre-war population has fled, and fighting between the Syrian army and rebel groups has devastated the suburb. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said warplanes conducted at least eight raids on Jobar yesterday.

Meanwhile in Aleppo, the Observatory said ISIS had seized new territory from other rebels, blocking a key route between Aleppo and the Turkish border.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'US, Russia to hold talks on avoiding close air encounters'. Print Edition | Subscribe