Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that the U.S. is finding ways to communicate with Russia on air operations over Syria despite Moscow's suspension of the "deconfliction channel" in response to the April 6 cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield.
Mattis told reporters on his plane traveling to Saudi Arabia that Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve is still talking to the Russian military on avoiding mid-air accidents and possible confrontations over Syria despite the "deconfliction channel" hotline being suspended, USA Today reported.
Russia announced that it was ending its participation in the deconfliction channel shortly after the U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from the destroyers Porter and Ross at Syria's Shayrat airfield in response to an alleged Syrian chemical attack on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun two days earlier.
Russian officials later said that the deconfliction channel had been suspended, but U.S. troops adopted a more defensive posture to guard against misunderstandings.
Until Mattis spoke Tuesday, the Pentagon and CJTF had been tight-lipped on whether the U.S. was finding ways to work around the channel suspension.
In a video briefing last week from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for CJTF-OIR, repeatedly declined comment on the so-called "deconfliction channel" and attempts to communicate with the Russians.
Discussing the deconfliction channel "was not a productive thing to do," Dorrian said, "and that's the reason that we are no longer doing readouts of what those discussions are, and we will not get back into that business."
However, "We have continued to deconflict as necessary with the Russians," he said, declining to explain how that is being done.
In Moscow last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a joint news conference with visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to re-open the deconfliction channel on condition that the U.S. avoid any attempt to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"We are willing to put it back into force," Lavrov said, but only under U.S. assurances that its sole mission in Syria is the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.