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Close Call: U.S., Russian Planes Nearly Collide Over Syria


Here's another issue adding to the tension between the U.S. and Russia. For a while now, both American and Russian planes have been launching missions against targets in Syria, and there have been some serious close calls and near-collisions. American pilots say the skies over Syria are an international incident waiting to happen. Michael Phillips reported on this for The Wall Street Journal. He told me about one incident involving American F-15s refueling in the air and a Russian fighter.

MICHAEL PHILLIPS: The Russian plane came within probably about a mile and a half, which doesn't sound close unless you're going 450 miles an hour.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right.

PHILLIPS: And then that's actually really close.


PHILLIPS: The U.S. plane actually snapped pictures of the Russians. It was a Su-35 Flanker advanced fighter plane. And, you know, nothing, in the end, happened, but he shadowed the U.S. planes as they were - as they were refueling.

MCEVERS: I mean, the militaries of both these countries signed an agreement in 2015 that was supposed to stop these midair crashes from happening. Why do they keep having these close calls?

PHILLIPS: You know, from the U.S. point of view, the Russians simply aren't following the rules of the road religiously. And they don't know if it's because they sometimes don't see the Americans. I mean, the Americans do fly some stealth fighters up there - F-22s. Maybe they're just flexing a little bit of muscle and saying, hey, we're going to - we can fly here as well as you can. Watch this.

MCEVERS: You wrote about one incident, though, with the U.S. bombing of Syrian troops in Deir ez-Zor. Can you tell us about that one?

PHILLIPS: Yeah, there is a hotline that the U.S. and Russians have agreed to. There's a Russian colonel in Syria and a U.S. colonel in Kuttar, and they can call each other up at any moment. And when the U.S. started to accidentally - I mean, it was the intention was not to bomb Syrian troops, but they were there accidentally doing so or in inadvertently doing so - the Russians called on that hotline. The colonel who called - the Russian colonel - asked for a particular U.S. colonel that he knew, and that guy didn't happen to be in the office at the time. And instead of saying, well, somebody has to stop this bombing, the Russian colonel hung up and didn't call back for nearly another half-hour.

MCEVERS: So according to the Americans - I mean, the implication here is that had this Russian colonel reached his counterpart, that bombing could have been stopped?

PHILLIPS: The American view would be that if he had said, oh, well, you know, Colonel X isn't there. Well, is anybody else there that I could talk to?


PHILLIPS: That - maybe that would have, you know, made a bad situation less bad. I don't know if it would have prevented all the deaths that occurred.

MCEVERS: Tell us about the female air controller - the American.

PHILLIPS: Well, the Russians generally do not answer radio calls from U.S. air controllers in this whole theater of operation. The one exception is sometimes they will answer women. And so there was a case in September - I know of two cases - but one in September in which a female air surveillance officer got on the radio when she spotted an unidentified plane, which would have been a Russian plane, approaching allied aircraft. And she said, you're operating in the vicinity of coalition aircraft. And there's a lot of static on the line, and then a Russian accent came through. You have to pardon my Russian accent here. The voice said, you have a nice voice, lady. Good evening.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

PHILLIPS: And that's...

MCEVERS: And that was it?

PHILLIPS: That was it, and that was the end of the communication. I was fortunate enough to be able to actually hear this recording of the conversation.

MCEVERS: Were you able to get a Russian response on this?

PHILLIPS: Today they did send us a statement after the story came out in The Wall Street Journal.


PHILLIPS: Their message seems to be that the U.S. is not cooperating. The Russians are trying to cooperate. The Russian pilots are being professional, and the Americans are not. And there's a suggestion that this is what they called a Russophobic farewell performance by the Obama administration, as opposed to a genuine critique of what's going on in the skies over Syria.

MCEVERS: Michael Phillips, reporter for The Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

PHILLIPS: Pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.