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There has been at least one close encounter between a Russian aircraft and a U.S. aircraft over Syria, forcing the U.S. to re-route that aircraft to avoid a conflict, the Pentagon confirmed on Wednesday.
Moscow's unexpected move to launch airstrikes in Syria has brought the greatest threat of an accidental clash between Russian and Western forces since the Cold War. Russian warplanes as well as those of the United States and its allies are now flying combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War II, raising concerns about potentially dangerously crowded airspace.
The U.S. continues to conduct airstrikes over Syria, but the missions are “not unabated” as the U.S. had been saying in recent days, Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis told reporters during a briefing on Wednesday. The manned U.S. aircraft was within 20 miles of a Russian aircraft.
He did not elaborate on exactly when and where in Syrian airspace the incident occurred.
The U.S. has “a high level of situational awareness” of the airspace above Syria, Davis said, and American military officials have “taken some actions to ensure safe separation of aircraft.”
Davis said this latest incident occurred since the U.S. and Russia had their "deconfliction" talk last week. As of now, the next deconfliction discussion is not yet scheduled with Russia yet.
Davis’ remarks came as two U.S. defense officials confirmed Russian warships had fired long-range missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea. Neither official could say if the U.S. was notified about Moscow’s decision to launch the missiles for the first time.
Russia’s air campaign over Syria has heightened tensions between Moscow and the officials in Washington have questioned whether Russia is using a stated campaign against ISIS to help shore up embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The two senior defense officials said that Russians are using their artillery batteries and multi-launch rocket systems in support of thousands of Assad regime forces conducting ground operations to take back rebel-held areas in the west.
Russian strikes continue to target primarily the al Ghab Valley, essentially Hama, but they have struck as far as Aleppo and there was at least one strike as far east as Dayr al-Zawr which was likely against an ISIS target. Both officials characterized that strike as a one-off to keep up the claim that they are striking ISIS.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday became the latest high-ranking official to publicly question Russia’s strategy, saying Wednesday that it was “tragically flawed” on Moscow’s part.
Two senior defense officials said the Pentagon continues to tracking the escalation of Russian military activity in Syria.
Russia has four warships in the Caspian Sea. They are firing Kaliber missiles — long-range, land attack cruise missiles similar to a Tomahawk. This marks the first time the Russians have ever used the Kalibers other than in training.
Neither official could say how many Russian troops are in Syria now, but both said the Russians are using their artillery batteries and multi-launch rocket systems in support of thousands of Assad regime forces conducting ground operations to take back rebel-held areas in the west.
One official said that the Russians are “leveling stuff” and said the strikes seem to be “indiscriminate”.
Neither official could say whether the U.S. was notified that the Russian missiles would fly over Iraq or whether there were any close calls with U.S. aircraft flying in that country.