The U.S. military and Russia have stepped up their communication about operations over Syria to include dialogue between U.S. and Russian generals in the Middle East, said the top Air Force general in the region.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the commander of Air Forces Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that “deconfliction” between the two countries has been boosted as the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State progresses in preparation for an assault on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the militant group. The talks are designed to prevent aerial accidents or clashes between aircraft.
“We have had to increase the amount of deconfliction work we are doing with the Russians given the tighter airspace that we are now working ourselves through,” Harrigian said, speaking from his headquarters in Qatar. “The Russians, while we don’t give them the specifics, we note where we are 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.”
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Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced last week in a news conference that a new deconfliction “channel” was added recently between the Russians and the Americans to ensure the safety of aviators and troops on the ground. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a member of Dunford’s staff, regularly communicates with Russian officers as part of it, Dunford said.
Harrigian added Wednesday that deconfliction talks also were enhanced within the past few months to include his deputy, Air Force Maj. Gen. David S. Nahom, speaking with Russian officers. That has occurred only a few times, Harrigian said, but it has helped both sides make clear what their plans are.
“I’m putting coalition airmen into what can be very complex and dynamic situations,” the general said. “My job is to provide them with as clear and unambiguous intent as possible.”
The discussions come despite uneasy dynamics that began in September 2015, when Russia deployed troops and aircraft to Syria to back the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. and Russia first reached an agreement in which a U.S. colonel and a Russian counterpart could call each other to make sure their nation’s operations did not overlap unsafely.
Last month, the Russians threatened to stop communicating after the United States launched a Tomahawk missile attack from Navy destroyers in response to the Syrian military’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. The missiles struck a Syrian base on which Syrian and Russian troops were deployed, with the Russians receiving advance notice so they could evacuate.
Harrigian said that the U.S.-led coalition and the Russians do not discuss the four deescalation zones that officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to establish and enforce in a meeting in the Kazakh capital of Astana earlier this month. They come with a call for Syrian opposition fighters and groups loyal to the Assad regime to stop fighting each other.
Harrigian said that the deescalation zones will not affect coalition operations and that U.S. troops have been closely tracking the rotation and movement of Russian aircraft. To date, the relationship has been workable, if not fully comfortable.
“I’m not going to say that it is always easy, and it often takes several phone calls to work our way through it,” Harrigian 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.”