Monday 20 May 2019

US airstrikes planned with Russia via 'hotline'

A UK submarine launches a Tomahawk missiles. Photos: P
A UK submarine launches a Tomahawk missiles. Photos: P

Gordon Rayner

Planned American airstrikes on Syria are being co-ordinated with Russia, it has emerged.

The US has identified eight potential targets in Syria, it was reported, as the Kremlin claimed a secure hotline for the US and Russia to communicate over their operations in Syria was "active" and being used by both sides.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expects allied forces to reveal the location of the targets in advance, to avoid bloodshed and restrict damage to legitimate military assets.

According to US reports, the targets selected include two Syrian airfields, a research centre and a chemical weapons facility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expects warning on airstrikes. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin expects warning on airstrikes. Photo: Reuters

The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that Russia and the US were talking on a "deconfliction line" set up in 2015 to co-ordinate air strikes, which operates between US central command in Qatar and Russia's equivalent in Syria.

He said: "The line exists and it is active. In general, the line is used by both sides."

The affirmation by Mr Putin's spokesman that communications with the US were ongoing showed "they understand there's danger and are trying to avoid it," according to defence analyst Alexander Golts.

The US gave Russia around 90 minutes warning for a strike with 59 Tomahawks against the Shayrat airbase in April last year after another chemical weapons attack.

'Kommersant' newspaper reported Russia "is expecting to receive co-ordinates of the targets at which the United States is planning to launch strikes".

Russia's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the priority in Syria was "to avert the danger of war".

RAF Tornado GR4’s, which could be deployed against Syria. Photos: PA
RAF Tornado GR4’s, which could be deployed against Syria. Photos: PA

Following a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, he was asked if he was referring to a war between the United States and Russia, and said: "We cannot exclude any possibilities unfortunately."

The dialogue between Washington and Moscow is understood to have enabled UK Prime Minister Theresa May to assure her cabinet that adequate plans are now in place to restrict the fallout from any British participation in airstrikes on Syria and that any military response to last week's chemical attack will not escalate into war.

During a two-hour emergency cabinet meeting, Mrs May secured the backing of ministers to join an international response "to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime", Downing Street said.

A spokesperson said: "The prime minister spoke to President Trump about Syria. They agreed that the Assad regime had established a pattern of dangerous behaviour in relation to the use of chemical weapons.

"They agreed it was vital the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. They agreed to keep working closely together on the international response."

President Donald Trump - who had warned Russia on Wednesday that missiles "will be coming" - toned down his rhetoric on Thursday by saying that a missile strike could be "very soon or not so soon at all".

The US is moving 10 warships and two submarines into position armed with up to 700 Tomahawk cruise missiles, while Mrs May has ordered at least one British submarine to the area with a capability to fire up to 38 Tomahawks against Assad regime targets.

Before chairing the meeting of his National Security Council, Mr Trump said: "We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation. It's too bad that the world puts us in a position like that."

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to join any allied response, and said he had "proof" that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday evening: "President Trump just finished a meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Syria. No final decision has been made. We are continuing to asses intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies."

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Syrian regime warplanes have carried out barely any raids since Mr Trump threatened strikes, as Assad forces scramble to move weapons and equipment away from sites they fear will be hit by US missiles.

Civilians in rebel-held areas and monitoring groups said that the skies had been quiet since Sunday, when Mr Trump warned the regime would pay "a big price" for a chemical weapons attack that killed 70 people in Douma.

Analysts believe the lull in the bombing is a result of Assad's forces rushing to move their aircraft to Russian bases in Syria, which are less likely to be targeted by American missiles.

"Since Trump tweeted his initial threats the regime has completely changed its military deployments, particularly its air force, which in turn disrupted its air campaign," said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at the Le Beck geopolitical consultancy.

"In a way, the mere threat of action has already been enough to save lives on the ground," he added.

Airstrikes by Russian and regime aircraft are normally a daily occurrence in Idlib, a rebel-held province in northwest Syria. But residents there said they had enjoyed several days of quiet since Mr Trump first issued his threats. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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