United States expects agreement with Russia soon on Syria air safety

A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry shows a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber dropping a bomb in the air over Syria.
A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry shows a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber dropping a bomb in the air over Syria.PHOTO: REUTERS

BOSTON/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States expects an agreement with Russia's military soon on air safety protocols in the skies above Syria, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday (Oct 13), as the former Cold War foes seek to avoid a clash during rival bombing campaigns.

Russia's entry into Syria's civil war has stoked concerns about an accidental mishap between US and Russia jets. The Pentagon has already cited cases in which Russia aircraft came within miles of piloted US fighters jets and drones.

The United States has said it will not alter its air operations against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in Syria or cooperate with Moscow, given Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But the Pentagon has agreed to work with Moscow on basic air safety procedures and said it would keep a channel of communications open. "Our talks there are very professional, they're very constructive, and I expect them to lead in very short order to an agreement," Mr Carter told a news briefing in Boston.

US proposals, first outlined during a secure video conference between the US and Russian militaries on Oct 1, include maintaining a safe distance between US and Russian aircraft and using common radio frequencies for distress calls.

Mr Carter said a third round of talks between the US and Russian militaries would be held on Wednesday. Russia's Interfax news agency, citing Russian military officials, said the talks would be held via video conference.

"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.

Earlier on Tuesday, the US military said two US and two Russian aircraft "entered the same battle space" over Syria on Saturday, getting within miles of each other.

Saturday was also the last round of talks between the US and Russian militaries.

US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said the Russians have repeatedly broken air patrols and come close to American unmanned aerial vehicles or drone aircraft.

"We've seen instances where ... one of our UAVs will sort of come nearby and the Russian will break his pattern and come over and take a close look at the drone, or the UAV," he told a Pentagon news briefing, speaking via video-conference.

He said Russia has carried out about 80 strikes so far - a far lower count than Moscow has offered, possibly due to different methodologies for calculating strikes. "I find these air strikes to be reckless and indiscriminate," he said, renewing the US accusation that only a fraction of Russia's strikes target ISIS or ISIS-held territory.