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US, Russian Generals Revive Agreement on Syrian Airspace

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FILE - A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, in this U.S. Air Force handout photo taken Sept. 23, 2014. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to

Top U.S. and Russian military officials say they have agreed to revive a previous agreement intended to prevent midair incidents by warplanes from the two countries flying over Syria.

Statements in Washington and Moscow on Saturday said General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had spoken by telephone with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, and that they had agreed to fully restore the agreement on using Syrian airspace that had been in force from late 2015 through most of last year.

The two senior generals also discussed the recent Astana agreement, in which Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed on a Kremlin-proposed plan to reduce the violence in Syria through "de-escalation zones" — areas of the war-torn country where clashes between Syrian rebels and forces of the Damascus government have been particularly intense.

No U.S. participation

The United States had a representative at the talks in Kazakhstan but did not participate in the negotiations, largely because of Iran's involvement.

A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said Gerasimov and Dunford "affirmed their commitment to de-conflicting operations in Syria," and that they also agreed to remain in contact.

Russian authorities said the de-escalation zones in Syria went into effect at midnight Friday (2100 UTC), and that those zones were now closed to aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition. No details of how the zones will operate or how aircraft exclusions will be enforced have been announced, and other reports quoted Russian officials as saying full details of the plan would not be available for at least a month.

FILE - U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford meets with Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and first deputy minister of defense, in Baku, Azerbaijan, Feb. 16, 2017.
FILE - U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford meets with Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and first deputy minister of defense, in Baku, Azerbaijan, Feb. 16, 2017.

Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S.-led coalition aircraft sometimes operate in the same area in Syria, and it is uncertain whether American aviators will agree to abide by the airspace restrictions Russia has declared.

Pentagon officials told The Washington Post the de-escalation measures would not affect the U.S.-led campaign against militants from the Islamic State group.

Separately, U.S. officials reported multiple airstrikes targeting Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq on Friday. A news release on the air assault said 18 strikes, consisting of 59 sorties by warplanes, were carried out. The strikes destroyed IS oil storage tanks, weapons systems, supply caches and a "factory" that assembled car bombs and truck bombs.

Russia, Turkey and Iran said they signed their Astana agreement on Thursday. It's aimed at reducing bloodshed in Syria, where a six-year civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

FILE - People inspect the damage at a site after it was hit by shelling carried out by rebels at Syrian government-held areas of Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA, July 11, 2016.
FILE - People inspect the damage at a site after it was hit by shelling carried out by rebels at Syrian government-held areas of Aleppo, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA, July 11, 2016.

The four areas set for de-escalation are parts of Syria where rebels not associated with IS terrorists control significant territory. Representatives of the Syrian rebels who attended the Astana talks said in a statement early Saturday that truce efforts should be extended throughout all of Syria.

The rebels said they would not be bound by the Russian-Turkish-Iranian declaration, since they had no part in negotiating it. However, reports from Syria itself on Saturday — gathered from activist groups, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and news reporters — indicated there was relative calm in many areas, with fewer airstrikes and less shelling than in recent days.

U.S. cautious

The U.S. State Department said this week that "the United States supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of [Islamic State] and other terrorists, and create conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict."

However, a statement issued Thursday in Washington said U.S. diplomats would be cautious in assessing whether the Astana agreement could offer such hopes, "in light of the failures of past agreements."

"We expect the [Damascus] regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done," the U.S. statement said, adding that Washington expects Russia to ensure compliance by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government.

Iran's involvement in the de-escalation effort together with Russia and Turkey is a particular concern, the U.S. statement noted: "Iran's activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran's unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians."

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