As Russia launches its first strikes in Syria, defying recent agreements to deconflict with U.S. forces, the Pentagon is rejecting its call to stay out of the way.
The U.S. forces bombing Islamic State targets in Syria will not yield to Russian jets, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday. He also confirmed that Russia’s first strikes on Wednesday were not in areas where the Islamic State operates — and that raises the risk of collision between Russian and U.S.-led coalition forces.
“The coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned, as we did today,” Carter said. “We intend to continue to conduct the air operations as we have been doing. We don’t intend to make any changes in our air operations.”
Carter said he didn’t want to detail what the U.S. military has observed about Russian activities. But he said, “One of the reasons why the Russian position is contradictory is that exact potential for them to strike, as they may well have, in places where in fact ISIL is not present; others are present … it does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach.”
Hours before Carter spoke, Moscow launched its first strikes in Syria — giving U.S. officials an hour’s notice but without deconflicting with U.S. forces as it had promised. Russian warplanes and gunships dropped bombs near the central cities of Homs and Hama, according to reports.
These are not areas where ISIS is known to operate in strength. Because they're not ISIS strongholds, coalition forces rarely conduct strikes there. But the areas are known to harbor fighters who oppose the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other groups who oppose both ISIS and Assad.
Carter declined to say what the U.S. is doing to protect its personnel from “unintended incidents,” saying only that operations have not been affected. He noted that a Defense Department team will meet in coming days with Russian counterparts to establish a more formal method “to insure we could avoid any unintended incidents over Syrian airspace.” The purpose of the talks, he said, is “to decide exactly what kinds of information it’s important to exchange to avoid incidents.”
One hour before the strikes began, a Russian official told U.S. embassy personnel in Baghdad that Moscow would commence “anti-ISIL” military action in Syria, according to Carter and State Department spokesman John Kirby.
“He further requested that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions,” Kirby said in a statement Wednesday that didn’t confirm the strikes but said officials had seen media reports. “The U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Russia did not notify the U.S. through the military-to-military contact that President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed just days ago was necessary.
They agreed regarding “our ongoing operations and their planned military operations was the need for those operations to be deconflicted,” he said. “Shortly after U.S. officials were in touch with their Russian counterparts to arrange that meeting. Those talks haven’t occurred yet.”
Both Carter and the White House declined to say whether Moscow had deceived the U.S. by agreeing to the talks but then launching the strikes before they could begin.
Earnest said the last-minute embassy visit was not “the most efficient way to make sure our military activities are deconflicted.” Still, he said, “The Russians have made clear they’re not interested in provoking a conflict.”
The strikes follow the Russian parliament’s early-Wednesday approval of military action in Syria. Moscow has suggested that such action will not include ground troops, at least in the near term. Meanwhile, other reports indicate the Russians, who recently created a forward operating base at an airfield in the coastal city of Latakia, are building additional bases in the country.
In contrast to Carter, Earnest said the U.S. doesn’t yet know Russia’s intended targets for its strikes, but he did say the Defense Department is monitoring the action. "It's too early for me to say exactly what targets they were aiming at and what targets were actually hit," Earnest told reporters during a briefing.
Noting he’s been “dealing with” the Russians for some time throughout his career, Carter said, “This is not the kind of behavior that we should expect professionally from Russian militarily professionally, and it’s one good thing to have an avenue of communication that is less unprofessional than a drop-in.”
“They have indicated now for quite some time that they were going to begin to conduct operations … They have said that they intend to deploy forces in Syria and conduct strikes and they have done that — I’m not surprised, they have been accumulating the wherewithal to do it.”
“I take the Russians at their word — they’re exceptionally clear about what they’re saying, and their actions now seem to reflect what they said they’re going to do,” he continued. “My problem isn’t that I don’t understand what they’re doing — my problem is what I think they’re trying to do.”
Earnest also insisted that U.S. strategy would not change as a response to Russia’s actions, which he described as not “flexing its muscle” but instead a last-ditch attempt to save Moscow’s long-held assets in Syria.
“Russia has treated Syria as a client state for quite some time,” he said. “Right now, that client state is in utter chaos, where the leader they’ve propped up for years is losing his grip on power. Russia is not flexing its muscle in Syria; they’re propping up an investment about to go south.”
Earnest reminded it didn’t go so well last time, when the Soviets attempted to impose a military solution in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or for that matter, when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
With a touch of defiance to Obama’s critics who are calling for the president to push back with force, he said, “There’s no military solution that can be imposed by Russia or anybody else on Syria.”