WASHINGTON D.C. – The Pentagon is not confirming whether Russian officials have cut a “deconfliction” channel established to avoid accidents between their forces and Americans in Syria.
Moscow declared it was cutting the line after President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against its ally, the Syrian regime, on Thursday in response to a chemical weapons attack.
Cutting the line could have implications for the U.S.-led fight against ISIS in Syria – namely the risk of mid-air collisions between U.S. and Russian air forces.
The U.S. and coalition partners have been flying missions striking ISIS since September 2014, and the Russian air force began flying there in September 2015 on behalf of the regime against anti-regime forces.
Pentagon officials on Friday insisted that the line was still working as of that day, but the Russian Ministry of Defense said it was due to be cut Saturday morning at 8 a.m., according to the Interfax wire service.
On Monday, U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. John Thomas told reporters, “We’re not going to talk about the status of the deconfliction line because we’re just going to let the situation settle and see what happens.”
“We don’t want to contribute to all the speculation about what different nations’ reactions are going to be, so we’re going to let it settle,” he said. “We’re going to let it settle, and make sure that we maintain the best possible communication in the airspace to keep it safe.”
Thomas said the U.S.-led military coalition has “continued to deconflict as necessary with the Russians.”
“Because whenever we’re flying we have to use all the available means to make sure that we don’t have any midair incidents. That particular line and how it’s used – we’re not talking about it,” he said.
“Without the deconfliction line, there are still ways for pilots to hail each other. There are other ways to deconflict, we’re going to use all of those means, no matter what the situation is,” he said. He added he was not confirming the line was cut.
The possible cutting of the line would be the first repercussion of the cruise missile strike, which saw two U.S. destroyers launch 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian regime’s Al-Shayrat air base in western Syria.
Senior U.S. military officials said they have evidence showing that the regime used the air base to carry out a chemical weapons attack on April 4 in the city of Khan Sheikhoun that killed and injured hundreds.
Thomas said he has received questions from media over whether the more than 500 U.S. forces in Syria who are supporting local Syrian forces in the fight against ISIS are now at increased risk due to the strike.
He said the U.S. commander leading the anti-ISIS coalition “is tracking his own concerns that he might have over force protection,” and is “apportioning the forces that he needs to both preserve force protection and press the fight against ISIS.”
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition has continued strikes against ISIS in Syria since Thursday’s strike.
On Monday, the coalition said in its daily report of airstrikes regularly sent to media outlets that it conducted 18 strikes in Syria on Sunday, targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
It also said it had conducted one airstrike on Friday to help repel an ISIS attack near Al Tanf against a base where U.S. forces and partnered Syrian opposition forces were positioned.
On Saturday, it conducted six strikes against ISIS.