US Tries to 'Deconflict' Russian Airstrikes in Syria

In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Homs Media Centre via AP)
In this image made from video provided by Homs Media Centre smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh of the Homs province, western Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Homs Media Centre via AP)

Russia's wide-ranging airstrikes in Syria left the U.S. scrambling for a response Thursday and appeared to set Moscow and Washington on a path of long-term confrontation in the region.

The one clear message that emerged from a day of mixed signals from the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House was that the U.S. would continue with its own air operations over Syria despite the Russian sorties.

"We have not altered operations to accommodate new players on the battlefield" said Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve which is directing U.S. and coalition efforts in Syria and Iraq.

In a video conference to the Pentagon from Baghdad, Warren said that the U.S. had flown several sorties over Syria Wednesday and Thursday and had conducted at least one airstrike against ISIS, destroying two excavators.

At a testy Pentagon news conference later, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook backed up Warren's message that U.S. air operations over Syria would continue.

He also echoed Warren in saying that the airstrikes conducted Wednesday and Thursday by Russian Sukhoi warplanes were not aimed at ISIS but appeared to be designed to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

However, Cook deflected questions on whether the U.S. and the coalition would live up to the commitment made by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and others to protect Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S. from potential attack by the Russians.

Cook said repeatedly that he would not be drawn into "hypotheticals" about the U.S.-trained group or other groups fighting against Assad and generally supported by the U.S., such as the Free Syrian Army. 

Cook said that a U.S. defense team led by Elissa Slotkin, the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, conferred by video Thursday with Russian Defense Ministry officials on "de-conflicting" U.S. and Russian air activities over Syria but little had been resolved.

Cook said that the conferees had agreed on more discussions within a few days to avoid a potential "miscalculation" by U.S. and Russian pilots operating in the same airspace.

He said there was still no agreement on what frequencies and even what language would be used by the Russian and U.S. pilots to communicate. "There will be another effort to engage to see where this goes," Cook said.

Despite the apparent disconnect between Moscow and Washington on Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the United Nations Thursday claimed that the U.S. and Russia "see eye-to-eye" on combating  the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and hitting the same targets.

"If the United States-led coalition targets only terrorist groups, then we do the same,"Lavrov said, echoing what Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Obama at their UN meeting on Monday.

At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Russia's airstrikes in Syria risk making the conflict "indefinite." He said that Slotkin in her talks with the Russians "pointed out that the Russian military operations we've seen so far raise some concerns, because Russia is targeting areas where there are few if any ISIL forces operating."

The airstrikes triggered a chorus of criticism from Congressional Republicans who charged that the Russian airstrikes would only prolong the civil war in Syria which already has killed more than 200,000, according to the UN, displaced more than four million and sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, charged that the Obama administration's response thus far was to issue "pitiful pleas for 'deconfliction' talks with Russia."

"Unfortunately, it appears 'deconfliction' is merely an Orwellian euphemism for this Administration's acceptance of Russia's expanded role in Syria, and as a consequence, for Assad's continued brutalization of the Syrian people," McCain said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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