Russia signals willingness on Syria \'deconfliction\' with US

Friday 02/10/2015
Grave concerns in US

WASHINGTON - Russia has informally said it will push ahead with efforts to avert potential mishaps between Russian and US pilots flying missions over Syria, Pentagon officials said on Tuesday.

A senior official, speaking during a European tour by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, said Moscow had signalled it would carry out commitments made in a first round of talks.

These include undertakings on which language Russian and American pilots will use for communication, the choice of radio frequency and the altitude at which warplanes will operate, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

US and Russian officials held discussions last week -- at Russia's request -- on establishing accident-avoidance measures so that warplanes flying over Syria would not be in the same place at the same time.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Washington noted Russia's informal response.

"We look forward to the formal response from the Russians and learning the details. We stand ready to meet again to continue... discussions as soon as possible," Cook told reporters accompanying Carter.

The so-called "deconfliction" talks came after Russia started bombing in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, further complicating the four-and-a-half-year conflict.

But since then, and despite Russian violations of Turkish airspace at the weekend, Moscow has not participated in further talks, despite US several requests.

Carter voiced concern about this.

"We are waiting for the Russians. They owe us a response," Carter said earlier Tuesday at a Spanish-US air base at Moron de la Frontera in southern Spain.

"These meetings were their initiative in the first place, focused on professional conduct. It's only professional that you follow through on the requests they made and they've not done that yet."

Turkey says Russian fighter jets violated its air space near the Syrian border on Saturday and Sunday, further heightening tensions.

On Tuesday, it said that eight Turkish F-16 jets, carrying out reconnaissance flights over the Turkish-Syrian border on Monday, were held on radar lock by an unidentified MiG-29.

Radar lock enables a warplane's missile systems to automatically follow a target.

Carter, who was speaking before the latest developments, said violations of Turkish airspace would "cause us further to strengthen our posture with respect to Russia," although he did not elaborate.

"It's further evidence that they are not thinking things through very well."

The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed Russia's involvement in Syria would not alter continued air attacks against Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists there and in Iraq as part of a coalition of more than 60 nations.

Carter could not confirm reports Moscow was committing "volunteer" ground troops to fight in Syria, but said if true, "that would simply be deepening their mistake".

Russia already has at least 2,000 military personnel in Syria, Pentagon officials say. They are stationed at an air base in the Latakia region in the country's northwest.

Carter visited Sigonella, a US-Italian base in Sicily, after stopping by at Moron de la Frontera, where the United States and Spain have agreed the permanent establishment of a force of 2,200 US marines.

Carter's five-day trip to Europe also includes a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on Thursday.