US Stance on Russia in Syria Remains Unchanged, General Says

In this April 11, 2017, file photo, Gen. Joseph Votel speaks during a news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
In this April 11, 2017, file photo, Gen. Joseph Votel speaks during a news conference with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Going into Monday's Helsinki summit, U.S. President Donald Trump promised warmer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the head of U.S. Central Command had few kind words Thursday for Russian forces operating in Syria.

"Russia's support and protection has allowed the Syrian regime to escape full accountability for their use of chemical weapons and the horrendous violence against their own people and has exacerbated the human suffering for hundreds of thousands in the western part of the country," U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon.

Votel's remarks came three days after Trump said, "I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. ... And I think we're all to blame" for the poor relations that exist between the U.S. and Russia.

Shortly after arriving at the Presidential Palace in Finland's capital, Trump said he believed Russia and the U.S. "will end up having an extraordinary relationship," The Associated Press reported.

This runs counter to the rhetoric of U.S. military leaders, who view Russia, along with China, as a high-priority military threat. For the past several years, the U.S. has bolstered its military presence in Europe to reassure its NATO allies after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Votel said he has received "no new guidance" as a result of the Helsinki summit.

"For us right now, it's kind of steady as she goes," he said, adding that U.S. and coalition forces "continue communication and deconfliction with Russian Federation commanders to ensure safety of our forces" while conducting airstrikes on Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces and operations in Syria.

The National Defense Authorization Act prohibits U.S. forces "from coordinating, synchronizing and collaborating with Russian forces, so that does guide our activities," Votel said.

"The nature of our interactions with Russian Federation commanders is in the area of deconfliction and communication, and the principal purpose of that is ensuring safety our forces, safety of flight and of our aircraft and our people on the ground," he added.

Any space for additional cooperation with the Russians in Syria "would have to be created by Congress or a waiver that they would approve to allow us to do something like that," Votel said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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