US Works Out Deal With Russians to Keep Aircraft Separated Over Syria

Carrier launch

The U.S. and Russia reached agreement Tuesday to "deconflict" each other's warplanes over Syria in a deal that the Pentagon's spokesman said was meant to keep U.S. pilots safe.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said the language of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) was not being released at the request of the Russians but the joint agreement on air operations over Syria was intended to avoid close encounters and keep planes at an undefined "safe distance."

Cook said "this should give our pilots -- again, if the Russians abide by it -- some comfort, some measure of comfort that these kinds of incidents can be avoided altogether, and that there's no need for them to have an encounter if everyone's abiding by these rules."

The agreement signed for the U.S. by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, was worked out after several video conferences between U.S. and Russian defense officials in recent weeks on keeping their aircraft operating safely over Syria while at cross-purposes.

The prime target for the U.S. was ISIS while Russian airstrikes have mostly been in support of the regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

The memo followed on several incidents in which U.S. and Russian aircraft were in close proximity after Russia began its own bombing campaign in Syria three weeks ago.

In one widely reported incident, U.S. F-16s on a mission to hit the self-proclaimed ISIS capital in Raqaa, Syria, backed off at the approach of Russian fighters.

Cook also did not deny that Russian fighters in recent days came within 500 and 1,500 feet of U.S. aircraft on separate occassions.

"We do not agree with the Russians on their strategy in Syria," Cook said. "At a minimum, we can agree with them on the safe operations of flights over Syria between our air crews and theirs."

Cook said there was a general agreement with the Russians to keep planes at a "safe distance," but he declined repeatedly to define what was meant by a safe distance, saying that air crews would understand what was intended.

Cook said the MOU includes specific safety protocols for aircrews to follow, including maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground.

Cook stressed that there would be no cooperation under the MOU with the Russians on targeting.

"The discussions through which this MOU was developed do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia's policy or actions in Syria," he said. "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."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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