US, Russia planes have closest call yet over Syria — Pentagon
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US, Russia planes have closest call yet over Syria — Pentagon

Emergency line of communication utilized to determine cause for ‘inadvertent’ midair white knuckler

Illustrative photo of an American F-15 intercepting a Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber during a Russian exercise near the west coast of Alaska in 2008. (US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative photo of an American F-15 intercepting a Russian Tu-95 Bear Bomber during a Russian exercise near the west coast of Alaska in 2008. (US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

A near miss between Russian and US warplanes over Syria this month was the closest the two air forces have come to a midair mishap in the war-torn country, the Pentagon said Monday.

The incident occurred in eastern Syria on October 17, when a Russian jet that was escorting a larger spy plane maneuvered near an American warplane, coming to within half a mile (0.8 kilometer) of the US jet, officials say.

“This was the closest in terms of proximity that we have come to date, and that is why it was a particular cause for concern,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters.

He characterized the incident as “inadvertent” and not an intentional act of hostility.

Russian fighter jets on the tarmac at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, February 16, 2016. (AFP/STRINGER)
Russian fighter jets on the tarmac at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, February 16, 2016. (AFP/STRINGER)

A US military official last week said the American pilot was buffeted by the turbulence from the Russian jet’s engines, feeling the plane’s “jet wash.”

It appeared the Russian pilot had simply not seen the US jet — either on radar or visually. It was dark and the planes were flying without lights.

The US-led coalition used a hotline to ask Russian counterparts what had happened.

“That emergency line of communication was used and there was discussion afterwards and it’s been determined by our folks that they saw this as an inadvertent contact,” Cook said.

Russian warplanes and coalition planes and drones operate in the skies over parts of Syria on a near-continuous basis.

That air traffic will grow heavier still as coalition-backed forces ramp up operations to recapture Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate.”

Pentagon chief Ashton Carter last week said the assault for Raqa would begin within weeks.

Fighters from the Islamic State group marching in Raqqa, Syria, Jan. 14, 2014. (Militant photo via AP, File)
Fighters from the Islamic State group marching in Raqqa, Syria, Jan. 14, 2014. (Militant photo via AP, File)

Cook said the number of US-backed Syrian fighters participating in the upcoming push on Raqqa is expected to “snowball” as operations advance.

“There are going to be more people who want to join the effort to dislodge” IS, he said.

But he acknowledged the pace of operations might mean some US-backed Syrian fighters may not have finished their training before the battle begins.

The Raqqa offensive “is going to happen sooner rather than later, because we think [IS] is under pressure across Syria and Iraq, and we think this is the right moment to begin pushing in Raqqa as well,” Cook said.

In neighboring Iraq, operations are underway to recapture the IS stronghold of Mosul from the fighters.

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