The U.S. is essentially ignoring so-called "de-escalation zones" declared by Russia and Syria while increasing contacts with the Russians to avoid conflict in Syrian airspace, a top U.S. commander said Wednesday.
"We don't recognize any specific zone in itself that we preclude ourselves from operating in" against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
"Wherever the enemy's at, wherever they present themselves, we're going to get after them," Harrigian said in a video briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad.
At the same time, "We have had to increase the amount of de-confliction work we're doing with the Russians, given the tighter airspace that we're now working ourselves through," he said.
"While we don't give them specifics, we make sure we note where we're going to operate so that we can portray that to them in a manner that allows us to continue our attack on the enemy, and gives us the freedom of movement we need to ensure that where the enemy presents itself, we're able to get after them," Harrigian said.
Earlier this month, Russia, Turkey and Iran -- with the agreement of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- signed a memorandum to set up four separate de-escalation zones in Syria as part of a plan to end the six-year-old civil war. Russia declared the airspace over the zones off limits to U.S. and coalition aircraft.
However, Harrigian said, "We do not have specific zones that we are de-conflicting with them. When we've talked to the Russians, we do not talk about those de-escalation zones. We just talk de-confliction in our operations."
Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told a news conference that a new deconfliction channel has been set up with the Russians. He said that a member of his staff, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., regularly communicates with the Russians on the new channel.
Harrigian said that deconfliction with the Russians is often complicated. "I'm not going to say that it is always easy, and it often takes several phone calls to work our way through it," he said.
"But I would say that we have found ways to ensure that we have our freedom to maneuver and get after ISIS and kill them when they present themselves."
Last month, Russia threatened to cut off contacts with the U.S. after Navy destroyers launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to the Syrian military's chemical weapons attack on civilians. Russia received advanced warning of the Tomahawk strikes to evacuate its personnel from the airbase.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.