Al­lies warned Rus­sia of ac­tion on ‘de­con­flic­tion chan­nel’ hot­line

The Sunday Telegraph - - Syria Strikes - By and in Moscow By Pa­trick Sawer

Steve Bird, Ed­ward Mal­nick

Alec Luhn

RUS­SIA re­ceived a se­ries of cru­cial warn­ings from the US of the im­mi­nent airstrikes through a 24-hour hot­line in­tended to limit the pos­si­bil­ity of a di­rect mil­i­tary clash be­tween the two su­per­pow­ers, it emerged yes­ter­day.

In the af­ter­math of the bomb­ing of Syr­ian tar­gets, Amer­ica, Bri­tain and France were all at pains to point out that the so-called “de­con­flic­tion chan­nel” – a con­tin­u­ously open line of com- mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Washington and Moscow – had been re­peat­edly used.

The strate­gic hot­line was set up af­ter Rus­sia be­gan of­fer­ing mil­i­tary sup­port to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in Septem­ber 2015. It is in­tended to help avoid any po­ten­tial mis­un­der­stand­ings as both sides op­er­ate over the re­gion, en­sure airspace con­trol is re­spected and so pre­vent the pos­si­bil­ity of clashes be­tween Rus­sian and Western forces.

Yes­ter­day, that hot­line ap­peared to have played an es­sen­tial role in en­sur­ing that Rus­sia’s hi-tech de­fence sys- tems and its mil­i­tary might, un­der­stood to be in the north of Syria, were not de­ployed against the al­lied forces.

Joseph Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US “specif­i­cally iden­ti­fied” tar­gets to “mit­i­gate the risk of Rus­sian forces be­ing in­volved”, adding that that in no way amounted to any con­sul­ta­tion with Moscow over the mil­i­tary ac­tion.

He said: “We used the nor­mal de­con­flic­tion chan­nel to de­con­flict airspace, we did not co­or­di­nate tar­gets.”

Jon Hunts­man, the US am­bas­sador to Moscow, said: “Be­fore we took ac­tion, the United States com­mu­ni­cated with the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion to re­duce the dan­ger of any Rus­sian or civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.”

Florence Parly, the French de­fence min­is­ter, said: “We do not seek con­fronta­tion… and that is the rea­son why, with our al­lies, we have en­sured that the Rus­sians were warned be­fore­hand.”

The Rus­sian de­fence min­istry said that only Syr­ian forces came into di­rect con­flict with al­lied forces launch­ing the strikes, and “not a sin­gle one of the THE Syr­ian regime used bar­rel bombs dropped by he­li­copter in a chem­i­cal weapon attack on its own peo­ple in the city of Douma, ac­cord­ing to the US, France and Bri­tain yes­ter­day.

Jus­ti­fy­ing the de­ci­sion to mount airstrikes against Syria, the three gov­ern­ments laid out ev­i­dence that the regime had used chem­i­cal weapons in the attack ear­lier this month, which ac­tivists, res­cue work­ers and medics say killed more than 40 civil­ians.

In a state­ment, the White House said: “Mul­ti­ple gov­ern­ment he­li­copters were ob­served over Douma on April 7, with wit­nesses specif­i­cally re­port­ing a Mi-8 he­li­copter, known to have taken off from the Syr­ian regime’s nearby Du­mayr air­field, cir­cling over Douma dur­ing the attack.

“Nu­mer­ous eye­wit­nesses cor­rob­o­rate that bar­rel bombs were dropped from these he­li­copters, a tac­tic used to tar­get civil­ians in­dis­crim­i­nately through­out the war. Pho­tos of bar­rel cruise mis­siles en­tered the Rus­sian air de­fence sys­tems”.

Asked by The Sun­day Tele­graph whether ei­ther Moscow or the Rus­sian mil­i­tary had been in­formed prior to the airstrikes, Theresa May said that “full and proper plan­ning was put in place be­fore the air strikes were un­der­taken to en­sure we could mit­i­gate and min­imise the im­pact on civil­ians and en­sure the strikes were ab­so­lutely tar­geted at their aim”, adding that UK had not been in­volved in those com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Vladimir Putin con­demned bombs dropped in Douma closely match those used pre­vi­ously by the regime. These bar­rel bombs were likely used in the chem­i­cal attack.”

The Prime Min­is­ter told a hastily ar­ranged press con­fer­ence at Down­ing Street, called within hours of the missile strikes, that all ev­i­dence pointed to the regime of Bashar al-As­sad be­ing re­spon­si­ble for the ear­lier attack on civil­ians.

Mrs May said: “Open-source ac­counts al­lege that a bar­rel bomb was used to de­liver the chem­i­cals. Mul­ti­ple open source re­ports claim that a regime he­li­copter was ob­served above the city of Douma on the evening of 7th April.

“The op­po­si­tion does not op­er­ate he­li­copters or use bar­rel bombs. And re­li­able in­tel­li­gence in­di­cates that Syr­ian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials co­or­di­nated what ap­pears to be the use of chlo­rine in Douma on 7th April.”

France has also said it has sim­i­lar proof that “chem­i­cal weapons were used in the attack – at least chlo­rine – and that they were used by Bashar alAs­sad’s regime. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment zone of the strikes, but did not speak of re­tal­i­a­tion. “History will put ev­ery­thing in its place,” the Rus­sian pres­i­dent said in a state­ment, adding that Rus­sia will call an ur­gent ses­sion of the United Na­tions se­cu­rity coun­cil to “dis­cuss the ag­gres­sive ac­tions of the United States and its al­lies”.

The Rus­sian de­fence min­istry, how­ever, did threaten to re­con­sider giv­ing sur­face-to-air missile sys­tems to Syria in light of the strikes. Rus­sia can­celled a ship­ment of such mis­siles un­der Western pres­sure in 2013.

‘Nu­mer­ous eye­wit­nesses cor­rob­o­rate that bar­rel bombs were dropped from he­li­copters, a tac­tic used to tar­get civil­ians through­out the war’

de­nies the claims, and its key ally Rus­sia said it has “ir­refutable ev­i­dence” that the in­ci­dent was “staged” with the help of the UK.

The attack on Douma, the last re­bel­held town in the East­ern Ghouta re­gion, started on April 6, af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the rebels and the gov­ern­ment stalled.

Ac­tivists from the Violations Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­ter (VDC), which records violations of in­ter­na­tional law in Syria, re­ported two in­ci­dents of bombs be­lieved to con­tain toxic sub­stances be­ing dropped by the Syr­ian air force.

The United States be­lieves the nerve agent sarin was used in ad­di­tion to chlo­rine, a se­nior of­fi­cial said Satur­day.

The se­nior US of­fi­cial, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, said anal­y­sis of images taken from the scene of last week’s attack in Douma pointed to the use of the banned agent.

“And while the avail­able in­for­ma­tion is much bet­ter on chlo­rine use, we do have sig­nif­i­cant in­for­ma­tion that also points to sarin use,” the of­fi­cial said.

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