Air Force general backs further talks between US, Russia on air safety in Syria

Air Force general backs further talks between US, Russia on air safety in Syria
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The outgoing general in charge of Air Combat Command says he would support higher-level communication between the U.S. and Russian militaries in an effort to avoid accidents in the skies above Syria.

“To me it makes sense that the deconfliction, the discussions, the more you can do that, the more you can build an understanding between folks that are flying in the same piece of airspace, the better off you’re going to be,” Gen. Herbert Carlisle told reporters Friday.

“So, I support that. Obviously, it’s a decision above my pay grade, but I think it makes sense when you look at what we’re trying to do over there and how complex and challenging that battle space is, and it is incredibly complex and challenging.”

Carlisle was speaking with the Defense Writers Group a couple weeks before he is set to retire.

The Washington Post reported that said senior U.S. military officials want to elevate the talks, but that the effort is complicated by concerns at the Pentagon about appearing to coordinate militarily with the Russians.

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The U.S. and Russian militaries have communicated on a regular basis since fall 2015, when Russia first intervened in the Syrian civil war. The effort is aimed a making sure aircraft from the countries are not involved in midair incidents with each other.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the top Air Force commander in the Middle East, told reporters in Baghdad this week that he would want to add more senior-level officials to the talks, according to the Post. Harrigian suggested that could mean including a U.S. general with somewhere between one and three stars and a Russian counterpart in the talks.

Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, also told the Post that U.S. military officials want to upgrade the technology used to communicate with the Russians, which he said up until now has consisted of “little more than a commercial phone line.”

Carlisle told reporters that Harrigian, commander of the U.S.-led coalition Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend and Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel are working on the issue with Defense Secretary James Mattis.

But from his perspective, Carlisle said, high-level air safety talks are going to become more necessary as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loses territory and as different forces move in on its de facto capital of Raqqa, constricting the battlefield and putting air forces in closer range to each other.

“By definition, as we take battle space away from ISIS, that creates more conflict potential between us and the other plays in the theater,” he said. “I definitely think it’ll intensify, and that’s one of the reasons I think Steve Townsend and Jeff Harrigian are talking about a greater dialogue with the Russians to try to prevent miscalculations or any potential conflicts.”

In addition to the Russian and Syrian air forces, Carlisle listed Turkish air operations as a complicating factor. Turkey and the United States have differing views on Syrian Kurds; the United States thinks they are the most effective ground partner in Syria, while Turkey considers them terrorists that are an extension of Turkish Kurdish separatists 

“Sometimes we know about what they’re doing,” Carlisle said of Turkey. “Sometimes we don’t.”