A day after an Obama-Putin summit at which the White House said it had reached “clarity” on Russian intentions in Syria, Barack Obama’s defense chief instructed his staff to establish a communication channel with the Kremlin to ensure the safety of US and Russian military operations.
Ashton Carter, the US defense secretary, seeks to “avoid conflict in the air” between the two militaries, said Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman.
“The safety of coalition pilots [is] critically important to us. We do not want misjudgment and miscalculation. We do not want an accident to take place,” Cook said.
Cook said the initial and primary purpose of the channel, agreed to on Monday between Obama and Putin at the United Nations, is to ensure no accident takes place between US and Russian pilots. But he did not rule out the communications line as a potential mechanism for outright cooperation with the Russian military against Islamic State (Isis).
A senior official advising Obama at the UN summit on Monday said Obama emerged from his meeting with Putin with “clarity” on the objectives of Russia’s dramatic out-of-area deployment of military force in Syria: “to go after Isil and to support the government” of Bashar Assad.
Russia has sent more than two dozen military jets – including the Sukhoi Su-24 bomber; the Su-25 close air support “Frogfoot”; and surveillance drones – to Assad’s western Latakia air base, the site of heavy Russian expansion during September. The US conducts daily airstrikes against Isis forces, mostly in the Syrian east that the jihadist army has wrested from Assad’s control.
Observers have interpreted the Russian buildup as a play to bolster Assad, a Putin client, and to ensure Russian influence over any post-Assad government as a fallback, with attacking Isis as a distant priority.
It raises questions about whether the Russians will use their air presence to attack the few anti-Assad forces whom the US is training to battle Isis – a program that has come under review after it has failed to produce the ground army the US administration promised last year would roll back Isis gains – much as the new “deconfliction” channel raises the prospect of Russian attempts to stop US flights on behalf of Assad’s enemies.
Cook warned Russia against any moves against anti-Assad forces under US sponsorship.
“Anything that undermines their effectiveness would be something of concern,” Cook said.