Syria Skies Crowded With Air Forces 10/06 06:24
The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded -- and increasingly dangerous.
The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross purposes
in Syria's civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they
are at risk of unintended conflict.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded --- and
increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack,
often at cross purposes in Syria's civil war, sometimes without coordination.
And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.
The latest entry in the air war is Russia. It says it is bombing the Islamic
State in line with U.S. priorities, but the U.S. says Russia is mainly striking
anti-government rebels in support of its ally, President Bashar Assad. The
Russians, who are not coordinating with the Americans, reportedly also have hit
at least one U.S.-supported rebel group.
That opens the possibility, however unlikely, of the Americans and Russians
coming to blows.
For its part, Turkey in late August began airstrikes in Syria as part of the
U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition. Turkish warplanes are fully integrated
into the coalition attack plan, as are those of Australia, which began flying
strike missions over Syria in September. France also began bombing in September.
And Syria's air force is also bombing targets within its borders, hitting
both Islamic State and anti-government rebels, all of whom Assad has labeled
"terrorists" with a broad brush.
U.S. and Russian defense officials held a one-hour video teleconference last
week on ways to "de-conflict" Syrian airspace, or prevent unintended air
incidents, including collisions. No agreement was reached. More talks are
expected, although a senior defense official said Monday there had been no
further word from Moscow, raising doubt about Russian intentions. The official
was not authorized to discuss the matter and thus spoke on condition of
The introduction of the Russian planes in the crowded skies over Syria
endangers not only air forces and military pilots, but non-combatants on the
ground, as well.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has expressed worry about the possibility of
"inadvertent incidents and lack of communication" with Russian air crews,
although so far the Russians have flown mainly in western Syria, relatively far
from U.S. and coalition flights in the country's north and east.
The picture darkened further on Monday as Turkey's prime minister vowed to
protect the nation's borders after a Russian fighter jet entered Turkish
airspace from Syria over the weekend. The incursion, which Russia said was an
accident, prompted Turkey to scramble jets to intercept the Russian plane.
Turkey also lodged a diplomatic protest.
The secretary general of NATO rejected Moscow's claim that its military
incursion into alliance airspace over Turkey wasn't intentional or important,
saying there were two separate incidents and "the violation lasted for a long
Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday that the
reported incidents were "very serious." Stoltenberg added, "It doesn't look
like an accident, and we've seen two of them over the weekend."
The violation is more than a Turkey-Russia spat because Turkey is a member
of the NATO alliance, whose defense leaders meet later this week in Brussels.
Russia is not a NATO member. Carter said he expects the matter to be on the
NATO agenda, and he repeated his strong criticism of the Russian military
involvement in Syria, calling it "doomed to fail" and "way off track."
"What we're seeing now is a lot of different countries and coalitions
operating in the skies over Syria," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "I think it creates a situation that is fraught
with danger and very delicate, as we'd seen in the issue of the violation of
the airspace with Turkey ... This should really refocus people's attention on
finding a political solution."
Russian officials say more than 50 warplanes and helicopters are taking part
in the open-ended air operations, including Su-24M, Su-25 and Su-34 jets. They
are flying 20-25 missions a day in Syria, compared to an average of about eight
per day by the U.S.-led coalition.
In addition to its air campaign, Russia has brought ground combat weaponry
into western Syria, according to U.S. officials. This includes a small number
of artillery pieces and multiple-launch rocket systems moved in recent days to
the vicinity of Hama, southeast of the coastal air base where Russia has staged
most of its aircraft, a U.S. defense official said.
The U.S. has no ground troops in Syria but is training what it considers to
be moderate Syrian rebels at bases in Jordan and Turkey.
The U.S. has been concerned that Turkey's focus in Syria may not be entirely
aligned with Washington's, given the Turks' worry about Syrian Kurdish forces
near its border. The U.S. worked closely with the Kurds to oust Islamic State
forces from the northern city of Kobani, whereas the Turks have shelled, but
apparently not conducted airstrikes against, those same Syrian Kurds.
In addition to Turkey, France and Australia, the U.S. coalition partners
participating in the Syria air campaign include Jordan, Saudi Arabia and
Canada. Turkey, however, carried out only one airstrike against IS before
turning its attention to bombing Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq.The U.S.
is experienced at coalition warfare, particularly in the Middle East, where it
has a highly sophisticated air operations center at al-Udeid air base in Qatar
that works like a military air traffic control center, making sure all the
flights are coordinated and targets are struck in line with common objectives.
But Syria is an unusually complicated case. Assad has his own air force as
well as air defenses capable of threatening U.S. or other coalition aircraft,
for one thing. So far he has not done so, but the situation is growing more
complex as Russia get further involved militarily.
Thus far, U.S. military officials have played down the possibility of air
accidents in Syria.
"While there's always the potential for miscalculation and for accidents,
it's important to remember that there is a lot of square miles in Syria," Col.
Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad that is
managing the air campaign in Iraq and Syria, said last week. "Most of these
strikes are two or four aircraft participating. They fly in, they strike, they