US, Russian militaries sharing more information on Syria

2016-12-27 21:56
Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the UN.

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the UN.

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Washington - US-Russian talks on their separate fights against the Islamic State group are becoming more productive and more frequent, American officials have said, with both sides trading information in real time and even outlining some of their strategic objectives in the months ahead. The progress dispels the notion that ties between the former Cold War foes are "frozen".

In the discussions, Russia has made clear its counter-terrorism priority in Syria is retaking the ancient city of Palmyra, officials said. The US is determined to pressure ISIS' headquarters in Raqqa.

The closer contacts between the two countries have developed despite their bitter accusations against each other over the devastation in Aleppo and Moscow's claim that relations are now "frozen on all practical levels".

The confidential military discussions aren't focusing on their opposing positions in Syria's civil war, where Russia is fighting alongside the government and the United States has backed rebel groups, officials said.

But US officials with knowledge of the ongoing conversations are crediting both sides with putting aside much of the public animosity, which has included Washington's accusations of Russian war crimes in Aleppo and Moscow's charges of American support for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

Much of the talk has concerned the two nations' immediate operations.

Since December 15, the US-led coalition has conducted airstrikes on about two dozen locations around Palmyra, destroying air defence weapons, tanks, aircraft shelters, storage bunkers and other vehicles and equipment. At the same time, US and Russian officials having been ensuring that the two militaries' don't cross paths in the airspace above the city that ISIS militants seized for the second time earlier this month, and that American strikes don't mistakenly hit Russian or Syrian forces.

Broader plans

But the talks have gone beyond the granular and even touched on broader US and Russian plans, according to several US officials, who weren't authorised to speak publicly on the confidential discussions and demanded anonymity.

The Russians have spelled out that after they retake Palmyra, they want to move on ISIS militants congregated in Deir el-Zour, a city closer to the Iraqi border. Succeeding in Deir el-Zour, according to one US official, could take Russia several months.

Palmyra became a more urgent mission after Islamic State militants ended the Syrian government's nine-month hold over the city, seizing Russian and Syrian military equipment and weapons in the process. These include dangerous air defence artillery that could be used against coalition and friendly forces.

According to officials, the US and Russian militaries have been communicating regularly, often in real time as strikes have been about to launch to make sure innocent troops aren't at risk. The new concentration of US strikes around Palmyra in the past week has made the effort especially important for Russia, one senior US official said.

Putin, Trump

The scope of the discussions suggests the two sides are pulling back from some of the extreme rhetoric in recent months, mainly coloured by Russia's support for the successful Syrian military effort to retake all of Aleppo. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed hopes that Donald Trump will improve US-Russian co-operation, it appears some of the groundwork already is being done.

US officials have legal constraints on how far they can go. American law prohibits any military-to-military relations with Russia in the aftermath of its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

But as Syria's various conflicts have escalated, it became more critical for the US and Russia to make sure they avoid crashes and other problems in the increasingly crowded skies - as happened when the US mistakenly killed dozens of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes near Deir el-Zour in September.

"We certainly don't want to have a repeat of that," said Air Force Colonel John Dorrian, spokesperson for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.

Palmyra poses particular difficulties. Several hundred ISIS forces are believed to be in the city. But Syrian government and Russian troops are also there, making it difficult to tell them apart.

Read more on:    us  |  russia  |  syria  |  syria conflict  |  military

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