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US and Russia sign off on air safety rules in Syria

Russia and the US have agreed on air safety protocols in Syria to avoid the risk of aircraft collision. But the US denied any broader agreement with Russia's strategy in Syria.

The US and Russia have signed a "memorandum of understanding" establishing a set of rules for the airspace above Syria. The goal was to reduce the risk of air collisions and conflict between Russian and US-led coalition aircraft over Syria.

"There's a series of protocols in place that effectively are intended to avoid any sort of risk of a mid-air incident between our air crews and Russian air crews," said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. "If they follow these protocols, we should not have the risk of engagement with Russian air crews over Syria."

At the press conference, Cook gave a broad overview of the agreement, but mentioned that the US accepted Russia's request to keep the details of the text secret.

The safety measures included "maintaining professional airmanship" and using specific aircraft communication frequencies. The two countries also agreed to keep a "safe distance" between aircraft since Russian and US warplanes have flown too close to each other in the past few weeks.

Additionally, the two sides will establish a "communication line on the ground" as a backup of military-to-military communication. "The US and Russia will form a working group to discuss any implementation issues that follow," Cook added during the press briefing.

Russian aircraft on a sortie to carry out targeted airstrikes on ISIS

Russian planes have been reportedly flying too close to U.S. drones and warplanes

No broader agreement

Although the two countries have agreed on air safety rules, their takeaways on the agreement differed greatly. Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that the understanding "shows a big potential for cooperation between Russia and the US, including in the fight against terrorism, which we are ready to expand and deepen." He maintained that the agreement was a positive step forward that has "important practical meaning."

The US, on the other hand, was quick to denounce any alliance rumors and to criticize Russia's tactics in Syria. They maintain that Russia's airstrikes mostly target rebel forces fighting the Syrian government rather than bombing Islamic State fighters. "We continue to believe that Russia's strategy in Syria is counterproductive, and their support for the Assad regime will only make Syria's civil war worse," asserted Cook.

"The fact that we have had to resort to a memorandum of understanding gives you an indication of our concern about Russia's activities but (also) our willingness to work with the Russians when it's in our own interest," said Cook.

The US-led coalition has been attacking targets of fighters with the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) since September 2014 while the Russian air campaign began bombing in Syria less than one month ago.

rs/jm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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