- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2016

A near miss between U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syria this month was the closest call between American pilots and their Russian counterparts since the Syrian air war began, the Pentagon acknowledged Monday.

The Russian fighter jet and an American aircraft came within a half-mile of colliding while conducting nighttime operations on Oct. 17 — setting off alarm bells inside the Pentagon as U.S. commanders were preparing for the final assault to retake the Islamic State-held Syrian city of Raqqa.

The aircraft were close enough that the U.S. plane reportedly experienced turbulence during the mission caused by the blowback from the Russian fighter’s jet wash, officials said last week.

The Pentagon did not officially acknowledge the incident until Friday, weeks after Moscow threatened to target U.S. aircraft attacking Russian-backed Syrian government forces after the collapse of cease-fire talks to end the country’s 5-year-old civil war.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Monday that the near miss was “the closest we have come, to date,” to a midair collision between U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syria.

Mr. Cook characterized the close call between the aircraft as an “unusual occurrence,” given how close the planes came to each other, and he said the incident highlighted “a particular point of concern” in the already tenuous relationship between U.S.- and Russian-led operations in the country.

“I think it’s fair to say that 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,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

Washington and Moscow have avoided catastrophe thanks to a standing deal to manage the increasingly cluttered skies above Syria.

The pact, reached in October 2015, established an emergency hotline of sorts that Russian and U.S. commanders can use as a way of maintaining order on a massively complicated Syrian battlefield.

“That emergency line of communication was used, and there was discussion afterwards” between U.S. and Russian officials on the events leading up to the near collision, Mr. Cook said, adding that Moscow made clear “this was not something they saw as an intentional act of hostility.”

Russian officials took to the emergency hotline Oct. 6 to call off U.S. airstrikes against Syrian government troops that American intelligence had misidentified as members of the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL.

American pilots halted the strikes near Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, but not before 60 government troops were killed and 100 were wounded, according to figures from Moscow.

U.S. Central Command is investigating the incident, which took place less than two weeks before the U.S. and Russian planes nearly collided.

“We don’t like to fly our aircraft within a half a mile of each other. I can assure you of that,” said Col. John Dorrian, the top U.S. spokesman for anti-Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria.

Crowded skies

The increasingly tight confines of Syrian airspace are expected to shrink even more as U.S. and coalition forces prepare to launch a massive operation to retake Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told NBC News on Friday that the U.S.-backed coalition in Syria was weeks away from launching the assault on Raqqa, which likely will eclipse the ongoing fight for the terrorist group’s Iraqi capital of Mosul in size and scope.

“It starts in the next few weeks,” Mr. Carter told NBC, referring to the Raqqa operation.

While the U.S.-trained Syrian Defense Forces will spearhead the American proxy ground force leading the charge into Raqqa, U.S. warplanes will provide air cover for the attack.

Given the expected scale of the Raqqa assault, the skies above the city could be flooded with U.S. fighters, bombers, cargo and refueling airplanes, further complicating the already muddled boundaries with Russian forces competing for that same airspace.

On Monday, Mr. Cook acknowledged the difficulties facing American war planners ahead of the massive Raqqa operation amid Russia’s continued military operations in the country.

“It’ll be a focus of conversations and continues to be with regard to the safety of flight protocols that are in place” with Russia, once the Raqqa operation begins, the spokesman said. “And we [will] continue to have those conversations with the Russians [as the assault unfolds].”

But another miscalculation between Russian and U.S. air forces could spark tensions between the two world powers, which recently came to a head.

Russia announced in October that its forces manning anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria would be unwilling or unable to adhere to the airspace pact with the U.S. That inflammatory pronouncement was made just days after Russian forces deployed several S-300 midrange and S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missiles into northern Syria.

Moscow said the missiles were sent to defend its main air base near the Syrian port city of Latakia, although the country’s rebel forces do not have any attack aircraft.

Russia has flown hundreds of fighter jet missions over the war zone from Latakia as part of its coordinated operations with troops loyal the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian-backed ground forces.

Russia’s activities in Syria follow a pattern of what U.S. officials have described as increasingly aggressive military muscle flexing by Moscow in several corners of the world during recent years.

The most brazen examples have included surprise incursions by Russian fighter jets across Western Europe, as well as suspected submarine missions into waters near Helsinki and Stockholm.

British defense officials revealed in May that they had scrambled two U.K. Typhoon fighter jets to escort Russian Bear aircraft away from British airspace.

Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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