US, Russia military hotlines hum as Syria war tightens

BEIRUT: Even as tensions between the United States and Russia fester, there is one surprising place where their military-to-military contacts are quietly weathering the storm: Syria.
It has been four months since US President Donald Trump ordered cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield after an alleged chemical weapons attack.
In June, the US military shot down a Syrian fighter aircraft, the first US downing of a manned jet since 1999, and also shot down two drones that threatened US-led coalition forces.
All the while, US and Russian military officials have been regularly communicating, US officials said.
Some of the contacts are helping draw a line on the map that separates US- and Russian-backed forces waging parallel campaigns on Syria’s shrinking battlefields.
There is also a telephone hotline linking the former Cold War foes’ air operations centres.
US officials said that there now are about 10 to 12 calls a day on the hotline, helping keep US and Russian warplanes apart as they support different fighters on the ground. That is no small task, given the complexities of Syria’s civil war.
While the conversations are not easy, contacts between the two sides have remained resilient, senior US commanders said.
“The reality is we’ve worked through some very hard problems and, in general, we have found a way to maintain the deconfliction line (that separates US and Russian areas of operation) and found a way to continue our mission,” Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the top US Air Force commander in the Middle East, said in an interview.
As both sides scramble to capture what is left of IS’s caliphate, the risk of accidental contacts is growing. “We have to negotiate, and sometimes the phone calls are tense. Because for us, this is about protecting ourselves, our coalition partners and destroying the enemy,” Harrigian said, without commenting on the volume of calls.
The risks of miscalculation came into full view in June, when the United States shot down a Syrian Su-22 jet that was preparing to fire on US-backed forces on the ground. — Reuters