Russian, US jets drill together to avoid tie up over Syria — Kremlin

Russian army says jets reach minimal safe distance of 5.5 kilometers; Moscow and Jerusalem also in constant contact

Syrian emergency personnel carry a body following an air strike on November 3, 2015, in the rebel-held side of the northern city of Aleppo. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP)
Syrian emergency personnel carry a body following an air strike on November 3, 2015, in the rebel-held side of the northern city of Aleppo. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP)

Russia and the US have conducted drills jointly to prevent the possibility of their air forces clashing in Syrian airspace, a Russian official said Tuesday, according to Russian media.

Russian and US jets practiced a close approach to a minimally safe distance of 5.5 kilometers, said Russian army officer Col. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, according to the Sputnik news outlet.

“Today at 11 a.m. Moscow time, Russian and US air forces carried out joint drills on actions by crews and land personnel in cases when aircraft fly in close proximity to each other,” Kartapolov was quoted by Sputnik as saying.

The announcement comes a month into Russian operations in Syria, aimed at bolstering embattled president Bashar Assad.

Moscow has butt heads with Washington and other Western capitals over its operations in Syria, amid accusations that it is striking non-jihadist rebel groups and not Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters.

Officials in Russia and the US, which is also carrying out airstrikes in Syria aimed at weakening the jihadists, had previously said coordination between them was not in the cards.

There was no official US confirmation of the joint drills.

“In the course of the training, issues of warning, organization of interaction and information exchange between the staffs of the operational groups and control centers of the Russian Air Force at the Hmeymim airbase and the US Strategic Air Operations Center in Qatar as well as the mutual informing of dangerous military activities in the air space of Syria were practiced,” Kartapolov said.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war had raised fears it could tangle with other aircraft also operating over the war-torn country.

The Russian army has already established a 24-hour hotline with the Israeli Air Force to avoid getting snared by each other.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after the latter announced that Russia will expand its military activity in the Syrian theater.

The prime minister took IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot with him to Moscow in late September, and during that meetings the sides decided to establish a mechanism of mutual warning to avoid clashes in Syrian airspace.

On Tuesday, the Russian armed forces said it was exchanging information with Israel 24 hours a day, according to the official Russian Interfax news agency.

Kartapolov on Tuesday also said that Russian jets bombed 24 targets in Syria using coordinates supplied by “opposition representatives.” His comments marked the first time Moscow claimed to work with opposition groups since the start of its air offensive.

“The coordinates of all of these targets were given to us by opposition representatives,” he said, without specifying which groups Moscow had cooperated with.

Moscow has been bombing targets in Syria since September 30, when it launched an offensive in support of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against Islamic State jihadists and other “terrorist” groups.

“Our aim both in Syria and anywhere else is to fight terrorism first of all,” Putin said in Moscow on Tuesday.

On Saturday, Lebanese and Syrian media reported that Israel Air Force warplanes attacked targets in Syria linked to the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah.

According to a report on the Lebanese Debate website, six IAF jets carried out the strike over the Qalamoun Mountains region of western Syria, and targeted weapons that were headed for Hezbollah, Channel 10 said.

Syrian opposition groups, for their part, claimed Israeli planes had attacked targets in the Damascus area, in two strikes in areas where Hezbollah and pro-Assad forces were centered.

It was not clear whether that attack was coordinated with the Russians. Official Israel did not comment on the report.

AFP contributed to this report.

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