WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia have signed a memorandum of understanding that establishes measures so their pilots steer clear of each other as they conduct separate bombing campaigns in Syria, the Pentagon said yesterday.
It's a significant step that follows several instances in which Russian and US planes or drones have come close to each other, raising the nightmare prospect of a mid-air collision or some other dangerous encounter.
Speaking to reporters in the Pentagon, press secretary Peter Cook said the document had been signed earlier in the day and had taken effect immediately.
"There's a series of protocols in place that effectively are intended to avoid any sort of risk of a mid-air incident between our air crews and Russian air crews," Cook said.
"If they follow these protocols, we should not have the risk of engagement with Russian air crews over Syria."
Moscow also reported that both countries had signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU), which boils down to some fairly standard air safety protocols.
Cook said these include guidelines on professional airmanship, as well as the use of radio frequencies and the creation of a secondary line of communication on the ground.
However, he was quick to stress that the understanding did not signal broader agreement with Russia's Syria strategy to support President Bashar al-Assad.
"The MOU does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence-sharing or any sharing of target information in Syria," he said.
"We continue to believe that Russia's strategy in Syria is counter-productive and their support for the Assad regime will only make Syria's civil war worse."
The United States is leading a 60-plus member coalition targeting Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria and has been carrying out frequent raids for more than a year.
Russia also claims to be targeting IS and other "terrorists," but the Pentagon says it is hitting non-IS rebels fighting forces loyal to Assad.
Implementation of the MOU follows a string of potentially serious incidents in the Syrian skies.
On one occasion, a coalition plane had to scrap a bombing run because Russian planes were already in the area.
Military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said that last week, a Russian plane flew within 450 meters of two US planes.
CNN, which first reported the incident yesterday, also said a Russian plane had flown within 150 meters of a US jet in another encounter. Warren was unable to immediately confirm that report.
"This should give our pilots – if the Russians abide by it – 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 is abiding by these rules," Cook said.
Russian planes have also flown close to US drones. A video posted by the Russian Defense Ministry on YouTube yesterday appears to show the view from the cockpit of a Russian jet as it flies very close to a drone.
The Pentagon says Russia had initially asked for "deconfliction" talks with the United States after Moscow launched its air war in Syria on September 30.
US defence officials were furious after they only got a vague "heads-up" from Moscow about an hour before Russia began its bombing campaign.
Syria's war has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions from their homes since March 2011, recently sparking a mass migration of refugees that has raised tensions in Europe. — AFP