ABOARD A US MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — Russian leaders have responded to a proposed draft of safety guidelines for military aircraft flying missions in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria, the Pentagon said Friday.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Friday that a second round of talks between the two countries about the plan could take place as soon as this weekend. The U.S. and Russia are trying to hash out flight procedures to ensure that there are no collisions or other incidents as both countries conduct bombing operations in Syria.
Cook told reporters traveling back from Europe with Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the Russians sent a formal reply and department officials are currently reviewing it, but he provided no details.
The response comes on the heels of a series of Russian aircraft incidents that raised concerns about the potential for mishaps, as the U.S.-led coalition continues to launch daily airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria.
Russian planes last weekend crossed into Turkish airspace, triggering an immediate protest from Turkey and a vow from NATO that it will defend its member nation. A Russian aircraft also came within a few miles of an American drone. This week, Moscow fired cruise missiles into Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, and the U.S. says four of them went awry and crashed in Iran.
The Pentagon wants an agreement on safety precautions in order to make sure there are no conflicts, misunderstandings or other problems as the U.S.-led coalition and the Russians fly over Syria. The U.S. side has proposed a number of safety measures, including using specific international radio frequencies for distress calls by military pilots flying in Syrian airspace.
Defense Department officials have said there have been no incidents or conflicts with the Russians in the last day or so. They say U.S. pilots know where the Russian aircraft are and fliers from both sides can see each other.
U.S. and Russian officials spoke once by video conference about the flight issues late last week, before the Russian incursion into the airspace of Turkey, which borders Syria. The U.S. had been waiting since then for a response.
U.S. officials have publicly warned that they would have no other meetings with Russia until Moscow responded with a written response to the draft, with any suggested changes or edits.
Carter also made it clear that the U.S. will limit any discussions with Russia to basic, technical talks about aircraft safety, saying, "That's it." And he's ruled out any broader cooperation or coordination with Russia as long as Moscow continues to strike targets other than the Islamic State militants in Syria.
The Russians have complained about the narrow scope of the U.S. talks, and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said Moscow wants broad discussions on international cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
Russia says the airstrikes it began last week are directed against the Islamic State group, as well as al-Qaida's Syrian affiliates. But the U.S. and other allies say at least some of the strikes appear to have hit Western-backed rebel factions fighting government troops, with the real goal of protecting Syrian President Bashar Assad.