Pentagon: US-Russia deconfliction line still open for now

Pentagon: US-Russia deconfliction line still open for now
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The communication channel between the U.S. and Russian military is still open, Pentagon officials stressed Friday, despite reports that Russia may close it in response to the U.S. airstrike in Syria.

“Our [military-to-military] communication line is still open and they are answering on the other end,” a senior military official told reporters at the Pentagon. 

Reports Friday morning indicated Russia is suspending the line, which was set up to avoid midair incidents between Russian and U.S. pilots in the skies over Syria. Russia and the U.S. set up the so-called deconfliction line in October 2015 after Russian air forces intervened in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

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The line was used Thursday when the U.S. notified Russia it would attack a Syrian airfield. Up to 100 Russian soldiers and personnel are at the airfield and have facilities there, the Pentagon official said.  

A Russian foreign ministry statement had said that Moscow was suspending the air safety agreement, while a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters separately that Russia would keep military channels of communication open with Washington but would not exchange any information through them.

Coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian told Reuters that the Russians “communicated their intent regarding the deconfliction channel to the Coalition today.”

A Pentagon spokesman told The Hill that the Defense Department has received no official request from the Russians to end the communication line.

The Pentagon did not offer an explanation for the shift. 

“We have a memorandum of understanding with the Russian forces within that area of Syria. That memorandum of agreement is still being used and supported,” the official said during the briefing. 

“We’ve had discussions with the Russians after the attack to confirm that the MOU is still active.”

The U.S. military, under the orders of President Trump, fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airbase on Thursday night in Syria. The Syrian military has reported nine people were killed and several were wounded in the strikes on the air base.

The attack was in response to a suspected sarin gas attack that officials say Syrian President Bashar Assad launched that killed more than 70 civilians, according to The New York Times.

The Pentagon official said at least 20 Syrian aircraft were destroyed in the attack.

Russia, which supports Assad, has responded by condemning the bombing as an “act of aggression.”

Despite this, Pentagon officials said there was no indication the Russians were changing their behavior toward the U.S. in response to the attack.

Following the Pentagon briefing, the Russian Defense Ministry pushed back and said the communication line would closed.

“The information given by the American media agencies that the Russian Defence Ministry ‘keeps’ the communication channels with representatives from the Pentagon within the Memorandum on prevention of incidents and providing security during operations in the air space of Syria is not true,” the ministry said in a Facebook post.