U.S. and Russian officials speak about three times per week to inform each other of their operations in Syria and avoid a disaster in the air.
The hotline was set up in the summer of 2015 when Russia joined Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war. While the two powers support different sides in the conflict and never ask each other for permission to act, “deconfliction” is of the essence.
“It’s not coordination, it’s not synchronization, it’s not collaboration. It is deconfliction,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in November, according to The New York Times. “It is about ensuring safety of flight.”
The situation that occurred after Islamic State fighters recaptured the government-held city of Palmyra last weekend showed the importance of the hotline.
Col. Daniel Manning, the deputy director of the Combined Air Operations Center, gave his Russian counterpart an hour’s notice Wednesday before American jets began striking equipment in Palmyra. The Russian colonel replied that Russian warplanes would do the same, and that he would inform his superiors about the American attack plans.
“The stakes are very high on both sides for getting this right,” Manning told NYTimes.
Other situations have nearly ended in disaster when the Russians chose to disregard information from the Americans over the hotline. Russian warplanes hit U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in June, in what military officials called the most provocative act since the Kremlin’s campaign began in Syria.
“It’s an egregious act that must be explained,” a U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times after the incident. “The Russian government either doesn’t have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we’re looking for answers.”
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