WASHINGTON -- The United States and Russia have agreed on ways to help avoid mishaps or potential conflicts among fighter jets and other aircraft attacking targets in Syria, officials said.
The announcement comes as the tempo of Russian air strikes against targets in Syria, now in its third week, has increased, at the same time that the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts against Islamic State militants continues unabated.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said October 20 that the agreement on flight safety protocols, signed a day earlier, would include a ground communications link between Russian officials and officials with the U.S.-led coalition.
He said the deal requires aircraft to keep safe distance and specifies the radio frequencies pilots should use to communicate. But Cook refused to give further details and he said Russian officials had requested that the specific text of the agreement not be publicly released.
The agreement does not include zones of cooperation or sharing of target information, he said.
The United States has been openly critical of Russia’s military deployment in Syria, saying Moscow’s real motivation is not to attack Islamic State targets, but rather prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally.
Since its campaign began September 30, Russia has hit scores of targets around Syria, and helped pave the way for a ground offensive by Syrian troops against rebel forces.
In Moscow, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said the memorandum was a positive step that has "important practical meaning.”
Antonov also said the memorandum "doesn't change the principled position of Russia."
The Defense Ministry said Russian forces made 55 combat sorties since October 19, hitting 60 targets -- including weapons, bunkers, and vehicles -- that it claimed were controlled by Islamic State militants.
There have also been several incidents of Russian aircraft coming very close to coalition aircraft. The Russian Defense Ministry posted a video on its YouTube channel on October 20 that appeared to show a Russian fighter jet flying under a plane that appeared to be a U.S.-built unmanned drone known as a MQ-9 Reaper. The video included the description “the presence of flying objects in Syrian airspace has grown in intensity.”
NATO ally Turkey has accused Russian aircraft of violating Turkey’s airspace as well, and Turkey last week claimed it had shot down a Russian drone that crossed into Turkish airspace.