- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2017

U.S. air commanders and their Russian counterparts continue to be in close contact regarding ongoing operations in Syria, despite Moscow’s decision to cancel a deconfliction hotline between the two, in the aftermath of an American attack on a Syrian military base.

Officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense said Friday it was suspending communications with U.S. counterparts in Syria. Moscow and Washington say the communications were strictly designed to ensure American and Russian air assets do not interfere with each other’s operations in the country.

The decision came hours after American warships fired launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles early Friday morning into Alawite-dominated region of western Syria. The strike, ordered by the Trump White House, was in retaliation for a chemical strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, against the rebel stronghold of Idlib province that left over 70 dead, including 11 children.

Despite the suspension of the Syrian hotline between Washington and Moscow, American commanders continue to work with their Russian counterparts in the region, a U.S. Central Command spokesman told reporters Monday.

“We have continued to deconflict as necessary with the Russians” as U.S. air ops continue, said command spokesman Col. John Thomas, who declined to comment how those talks were being handled.

“There are other ways to deconflict, and we are going to use all of those means, no matter what the situation is with that particular [deconfliction] line,” Col. Thomas said during a teleconference from command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. “It is not the only means available, but it has been a helpful means in the past.”

Col. Thomas refused to comment on the status of the deconfliction line, particularly as to when regular communications would resume via the hotline. “We are going to let things settle” before commenting on the status of those communications, he told reporters at the Pentagon.

“There have been a lot of things said … but here at CENTCOM, we are not going to get into policy discussions,” he said.

Prior to Friday’s decision by Russia to suspend the line, it had been used since Friday’s strike into Syria — first to warn Russia of pending attacks and again the following day as part of a regularly scheduled teleconference, Col. Thomas said.

Officials from the U.S. intelligence community were currently delving into accusations that Russia attempted to cover up evidence of the chemical strike in Idlib, which triggered the American response.

U.S. officials are still trying to identify whether Russian warplanes struck a Syrian hospital treating victims of the Idlib chemical attack, as part of an effort to mask the use of banned chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

U.S. intelligence officials spotted a Russian drone conducting aerial surveillance over hospital, which was being used as a casualty collection point for victims of the Idlib strike.

“Some hours later, the [drone] returned and the hospital was struck” by a conventional airstrike, a senior military official said Friday.

“We don’t know who struck [the hospital], we do not have positive accountability yet,” the official said. “But the fact that someone would strike the hospital — potentially to hide the evidence of a chemical attack … is a question that we are very interested in.”



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