US, Russia in secret deal to avoid conflict in the air in Syria

The US and Russia have reached an agreement on ways to "deconflict" the airspace over Syria. Specifically, the two sides agreed to rules that forbid targeting each other's aircraft and close fly-bys.

The Pentagon insists the agreement does not legitimize Russian intervention in Syria, a question raised by Senator John McCain who called the agreement "immoral."

Washington Free Beacon:

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Tuesday that details of the agreement, reached this week, are being kept secret at the request of the Russians.

According to other defense officials, the accord states that aircraft, including both jets and unmanned drone aircraft, will not illuminate aircraft from other countries with targeting radar or fire upon them.

Also, the agreement bans aerobatic maneuvers, such as barrel rolls, or what pilots call “thumps”—close passes by aircraft that involve gunning engines and causing target aircraft to be shaken by jet wash.

The agreement also covers any other unsafe aerial encounters, the officials said.

In addition to U.S. aircraft, coalition nations that are conducting airstrikes and will be covered by the accord include Australia, Canada, Denmark (which suspended operations in August), France, Jordan, the Netherlands, and Britain.

The agreement also sets up a communications mechanism on the ground that will permit officials in U.S. and Russian operations centers to talk, should other electronic communications prove insufficient.

Since Russian jets began conducting bombing missions in Syria, mainly against Syrian rebels and in support of the military forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, there have been what Cook said were “a handful” of unsafe aerial encounters between Russian and U.S. aircraft, involving both piloted jets and unmanned drones.

In one case, a Russian jet came with 1,500 feet of U.S. aircraft in an unprofessional encounter. Russian jets have also flown close to U.S. Predator drones engaged in surveillance missions.

Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, said the memorandum of understanding (MOU) covering what the military calls the “deconfliction” of air operations, was not intended to legitimize Russia’s military operations in support of the Assad regime.

“The MOU does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence sharing, or any sharing of target information in Syria,” Cook said. “The discussions through which this MOU has developed do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia’s policy or actions in Syria. In fact, far from it, 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.”

The Pentagon is being cagey when they claim the deal doesn't legitimize Russian intervention. Of course it does. It recognizes Russian claims to Syrian airspace and their attacks against US backed rebels fighting President Assad. 

But the agreement is also necessary and practical. We're not going to stop bombing Islamic State targets so the possibility of a confrontation or misunderstanding in the air was great. Needless provocations can now be avoided, and US pilots are safer because of this deal.

But you have to wonder what the US trained and supplied rebels think about this. We aren't likely to engage Russian jets that are bombing their positions, nor are we likely to supply them with anti-aircraft missiles. In effect, we are hanging them out to dry, allowing the Russians to bomb them with impunity.

Our Syrian policy can't get any more confused and incoherent, can it?