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.


Gaza truce holds after Israeli strikes over soldier death

Updated 31 min 19 sec ago
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Gaza truce holds after Israeli strikes over soldier death

  • Israel’s army and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to confirm a truce was reached
  • The United Nations urged all sides to step “back from the brink” after months of increasing tensions

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: A cease-fire announced by Hamas largely held Saturday after a wave of deadly strikes across the Palestinian enclave sparked by the death of an Israeli soldier shot near the border.
Israel did not confirm the deal announced by Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, which went into effect around midnight Friday.
Since then there have been no reports of Israeli air strikes on the blockaded enclave or of mortar fire from Gaza toward Israel.
“With Egyptian and UN efforts, we reached (an agreement) to return to the previous state of calm between the (Israeli) occupation and the Palestinian factions,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement.
He gave no details of the deal.
Israel’s army and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to confirm a truce was reached.
“All we can say is that there have been no incidents or Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip since the last wave of airstrikes on Friday night,” a military spokeswoman told AFP.
On Friday, three Hamas militants were killed as air raids sent fireballs exploding into the sky over Gaza, while Israel said rockets had been fired back at its territory. A fourth Palestinian was shot dead in protests near the border.
The United Nations urged all sides to step “back from the brink” after months of increasing tensions.
The soldier, shot dead along the border in southern Gaza, was the first to be killed in and around the Palestinian enclave since a 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
Friday’s flare-up is the latest as demonstrations and clashes on the frontier since March have seen at least 149 Palestinians killed.
The Israeli army said they struck 60 Hamas sites including weapon manufacturing sites, a drone warehouse and a military operations room.
The cease-fire is the second since in a week.
Last weekend saw the most severe exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the 2014 war.