Pentagon alarmed by uptick in close calls with Russia jets in Syria

Pentagon officials pointed to several recent close calls with Russian planes. (Reuters/file)
Updated 17 December 2017
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Pentagon alarmed by uptick in close calls with Russia jets in Syria

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is voicing growing alarm that the risky flying of Russian pilots in Syria could lead to a mishap — or even the nightmare scenario of a US jet shooting down a Russian warplane.
Defense officials this week highlighted several recent close calls with Russian planes, including on Wednesday, when a pair of US F-22s intercepted two Russian jets over a part of Syria in which the Pentagon says they are not meant to be operating.
The uptick in incidents comes as remaining operations by the US-led coalition fighting Daesh in Syria have shrunk down to an area of only about 39 sq. km Albu Kamal in eastern Syria, by the Iraq border.
Coalition forces are giving air support to local Kurd and Syrian Arab partner troops on the ground, as they root out remaining Daesh militants east of the Euphrates River. Under a verbal agreement, the Russians, who support Bashar Assad, are supposed to stay to the west.
Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, an Air Force spokesman in the Middle East, outlined a string of instances where Russian fighter jets flew east of the Euphrates without notifying the coalition.
On Nov. 15, two US A-10 Warthog ground-attack planes nearly collided head on with a Russian Su-24 Fencer that passed within only 300 feet of the American planes — a mere whisker in aviation terms.
One A-10 pilot had to “aggressively execute a defensive maneuver to avoid a midair collision,” Pickart said in an email to AFP.
Then on Nov. 17, two F-22s intercepted an armed Russian Su-24 that flew over coalition and partner forces three times and failed to respond to radio call.
“The F-22s intercepted this pilot and were in a position to fire,” Pickart said.
“Luckily our pilots showed restraint, but given the actions of the Su-24 aircraft could have reasonably been interpreted as threatening to US forces, our pilots would have been well within our rights to engage.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was not clear if the incidents were a mistake due to inexperience, or the product of boisterous young pilots “dangerously feeling their oats.”
“I don’t expect perfection, but I don’t expect dangerous maneuvers either and so we’ll sort this out,” Mattis told Pentagon reporters on Friday.
“Right now, I cannot tell you if it’s sloppy airmanship, rambunctious pilots or people who are trying to do something that is very unwise.”
Since Moscow entered the Syria war in late 2015, Russia and the US have been using a special “deconfliction” hotline to communicate about operations occurring in similar locations. Officials use the line constantly.
A shootdown of a Russian jet, or a midair collision, could suddenly and dramatically shift the stakes in the knotted Syria conflict and open the door to a retaliatory measures by the Russians.
“The coalition’s greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our air or ground forces,” Pickart said.
“We are not here to fight the Russians and Syrians — our focus remains on defeating ISIS (Daesh). That said, if anyone threatens coalition or friendly partner forces in the air or on the ground, we will defend them.”
At one point during Wednesday’s incident, the US F-22 Raptor stealth fighters deployed chaff and flares to convince the Russian Su-25s to leave the area, and one US pilot had to aggressively maneuver to avoid a midair collision, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said.
During and following the encounter, coalition leaders contacted Russian officers on a special hotline to try to calm the situation and avert a “strategic miscalculation,” Pahon said.
More than 340,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, and millions have been displaced.


Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

Updated 22 October 2018
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Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

  • The event will focus on ‘harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict’
  • Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend a critical four-way summit on Syria in Istanbul next Saturday. 

They will discuss recent developments in the war-torn country as well as projections for a political settlement.

Experts have underlined the importance of this summit in providing a strong push for key EU countries to work together with regional players to end the years-long conflict in Syria as it will gather the four countries’ leaders at the highest level.

The summit will focus on the recent developments in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, and the parameters of a possible political settlement.

The ways for preventing a new refugee inflow from Idlib into Europe via Turkey, which is home to about 3.5 million Syrian residents, following a possible offensive by the Assad regime will also be raised as a topic that mainly concerns France and Germany and pushes them to work more closely with Turkey and Russia.

The summit will also aim at “harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict,” presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced on Friday.

Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province. Although the withdrawal of some opposition groups from the zone has not been accomplished in due time, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to extend the deadline for Idlib, which is still a strategic area where the opposition holds out.

“Turkey and Russia want the status quo for Idlib. Although the jihadists have not withdrawn from the demilitarized zone, Russia is turning a blind eye,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon II.

“Turkey will make some efforts to save face. Turkish proxies have withdrawn because Turkey pays wages, so they must obey, but for the jihadists it is more complicated,” he told Arab News.

According to Balanche, without the complicity of Turkey, the Syrian regime cannot take over the north of the country.

“In exchange, Turkey wants a buffer zone in the north, all along its border. The main objective is, of course, to eliminate the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the border as it has already done in Afrin. A secondary objective is to protect its opposition allies and the Turkmen minorities, many in the province of Idlib but also between Azaz and Jarablus,” he said.

But the summit also shows that these four countries need each other in the Syrian theater as each of them has stakes regarding the settlement of the crisis.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said the main goal of the summit is to provide a major diplomatic boost to the ongoing Astana and Sochi peace processes, which have so far been led mainly by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“A second and maybe even more important goal is to include France and Germany in the reconstruction efforts in Syria once the civil war is over,” he told Arab News.

Considering the cost of the reconstruction, estimated at about $400 billion, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are not ready to take this enormous financial burden without the financial support of the West, Ersen said.

“Both Paris and Berlin hope that Ankara’s ongoing efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib can be successful. If the settlement in Idlib does not work, everybody is aware that this may lead to a big refugee crisis for both Turkey and Europe once again,” he added.

Martina Fietz, deputy spokeswoman for the German government, told a news conference in Berlin that her country is also hopeful about the forthcoming summit’s potential contribution to the stabilization of Idlib’s de-escalation zone.

“Progress in the UN-led political process, in particular the commencement of the work of the constitutional commission, will be discussed,” she said.

The chief foreign policy advisers of the quartet have met in Istanbul in recent weeks to discuss the agenda of the summit.