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Feeling conflicted about deconfliction

A Pentagon term for efforts to keep US and Russian forces out of each other’s way in Syria falls abruptly from favor.

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A man walks past a damaged water tank in Deir Sharqi village in Idlib Governorate, Syria.

Khalil Ashawi/AP

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If truth is the first casualty of war, it may be our language that often sustains a fair bit of collateral damage.

The awkward military ballet of US and Russian forces in, or over, Syria has already yielded its first big new military buzzword: deconfliction.

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It’s from a transitive verb, deconflict. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “To reduce the risk of collision in (a combat situation, airspace, etc.) by separating the flight paths of one’s own aircraft or airborne weaponry. Also: to coordinate (one’s aircraft) in this manner.”

Conflict is from Latin words meaning “to strike together,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The de- particle suggests “undoing,” as defrost refers to unfreezing something. To deconflict is to take the conflict out, in theory.

Oxford’s first example of deconflict is from the authoritative journal Aviation Week & Space Technology in 1975. The term is identified as a military term, originally from the United States. It seems to be an American term that British media get cranked up about.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus called “deconfliction” the “buzzword of the moment” in an Oct. 6 piece. And The Guardian actually ran a headline Oct. 1: “ ‘Deconflict’: buzzword to prevent risk of a US-Russian clash over Syria.” Its article said that the “already brutal conflict” in Syria “has taken another ugly and awkward turn – and it has thrown up a new ugly and awkward word to match.”

Tell us how you really feel, O Guardian. 

The piece reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry had announced plans for a “military-to-military deconfliction discussion” after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 

The Guardian also mentioned comments by White House spokesman Josh Earnest to the effect that President Obama had discussed deconfliction with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

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Ah, but just a few days after the Guardian piece, The New York Times reported a dramatic new development, headlined as “A Semantic Downgrade for U.S.-Russian Talks About Operations in Syria.” Forget “deconfliction.” The new term is “basic technical discussions.” Now there’s a phrase to make the heart beat faster. Why the change?

Go back to the Oxford definition for a clue: “To reduce the risk of collision....” That seems an unambiguously good thing. But note the second part of the definition: “to coordinate (one’s aircraft) in this manner.”

Here’s what the Times said: “Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter sharply took issue with suggestions, particularly in the Arab world, that the United States was cooperating with Russia, and he insisted that the only exchanges that the Pentagon and the Russian military could have on Syria at the moment were technical talks on how to steer clear of each other in the skies above the country.”

Perhaps “deconfliction” sounded too cooperative. The usual maxim in the Middle East is “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this case, though, the enemy of my enemy may be my enemy, too.