WASHINGTON – U.S. military phone calls with Russia have increased as the two countries work to avoid aircraft mishaps in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria, a senior American Air Force commander said Wednesday.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who is in charge of U.S. air operations in the Middle East, also told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. has been setting up temporary "deconfliction" zones around Syria. Military operations by Russia, the Syrian government or its allies are essentially restricted in those zones so American and U.S.-backed forces are protected.
Harrigian declined to say how many exist or where they are. But he acknowledged one is about 55 kilometers (34 miles) around Tanf, near the Jordan border.
"If the Russians are going to come in there, they're going to call us to give us information about what they would like to do, and we're going to have a discussion about it," he said.
Those zones signal increased military collaboration between the U.S. and Russia as the war on Islamic State militants in Syria escalates. But the boost in communications between Moscow and Washington comes at a complicated juncture in their relations.
President Donald Trump had a rare Oval Office meeting recently with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and talked about broader cooperation in resolving conflicts in the Middle East. Meanwhile, members of Trump's presidential campaign and administration, including his ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn, are under investigation for Russian contacts and potential influence on last year's election.
According to law, the Pentagon is prohibited from any military cooperation with Russia. But as both countries conduct airstrikes and other military operations in Syria, they have been using a telephone line and other calls between more senior officers to "deconflict" the air space, and make sure there are no accidents or mistakes that could threaten forces.
Harrigian said the "pure quantity of phone calls" has increased in order to "drive down the ambiguity" and ensure Russia knows where U.S. and allied troops are operating.
In addition to frequent phone calls between mid-level officers, there have now been a few conversations between two- or three-star generals and senior Russian officers. Those are done when the U.S. believes it needs to be sure the Russians understand the situation, he said.
Harrigian said the talks with the Russians aren't always easy and sometimes it takes several calls to ensure troops are safe. But he said Russia has been generally responsive to U.S. requests and there has been only one recent incident when a Russian fighter jet acted unprofessionally when it intercepted a coalition tanker aircraft. He said the U.S. expressed concerns about it to the Russians, and they apologized.
He also said that the temporary deconfliction zones are not connected at all to a recent agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran to create four de-escalation or safe zones in Syria. The U.S. is not part of that agreement and has reacted cautiously.