The Trump White House and the Pentagon on Monday sent mixed signals over potential U.S. military cooperation with Russian forces in Syria, amid claims by Moscow that American commanders had provided intelligence to their Russian counterparts in the civil war.
Reflecting the evolving U.S. posture toward Moscow under the new president, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in his first official briefing Monday, suggested that President Trump would be willing to work with Moscow to fight the Islamic State group in Syria, something the Obama administration resisted.
But Mr. Spicer made the remarks amid vehement denials by the Defense Department that any joint operations with Russia in Syria were even being considered by top military brass.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has tried to cultivate good relations with the new U.S. administration, helped fuel the confusion when the Russian Defense Ministry released a statement Monday claiming U.S. forces provided Russian air commanders with direct coordinates for targets of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab.
“On January 22, the Russian command center at the Hmeymim air base has received coordinates of [Islamic State] targets in al-Bab, Aleppo province, via the ‘direct line’ from the U.S.-led coalition headquarters,” according to the ministry statement, posted on the state-run Sputnik News site.
“After further data verification with the assistance of unmanned aircraft and space reconnaissance, the Russian Aerospace Forces and two jets of the international coalition have conducted airstrikes on the terrorist targets,” the statement said.
The Pentagon swiftly and categorically denied the claims, saying any participation of American assets in Syria to assist Russian airstrikes was “100 percent false,” said spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway.
Col. John Dorian, the top spokesman for the U.S. coalition in Iraq and Syria, insisted that the only military tie between Moscow and Washington is a “deconfliction” pact, ensuring that American and Russian aircraft stay out of each other’s way in the skies above Syria. Russia is in Syria in support of its ally, President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. has aided rebel fighters and insisted that Mr. Assad must go.
But Mr. Trump has upended U.S. views on the Syrian conflict and the possibility of collaborating there with Russia. Mr. Spicer acknowledged U.S. policy toward Russia in Syria was still developing but added that Mr. Trump has talked openly of his willingness to work with any international partner to defeat the Islamic State.
“I think if there’s a way that we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure we’ll take it,” he said.
The Obama administration briefly entertained the idea of cooperating in the air war against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria in September. But those talks collapsed after a tenuous cease-fire deal between moderate Syrian rebels and forces loyal to the Assad regime broke down.
Based on his campaign comments, Mr. Trump could soon open the door to such coordination.
But Russia has incurred the wrath of the international human rights community for its devastating air campaign against the armed opposition to the Assad regime.
The Russian military’s indiscriminate use of dumb bombs and cluster munitions — deemed illegal under the international rules of war — have led to accusations of war crimes.
James N. Mattis, now installed as Mr. Trump’s defense secretary, struck a far more skeptical tone on cooperation with Moscow against the Islamic State during his Senate confirmation hearing this month.
Mr. Putin is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance,” also known as NATO. The relative peace of the post-Cold War era is “under the biggest attack since World War II, sir, and that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea,” Mr. Mattis told the Senate panel.
“I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Mattis said. “I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t.”
Allying the U.S. with what critics say is Russia’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate tactics in support of Mr. Assad could backfire and even hurt the struggle against the Islamic State and other radical jihadi groups, some are warning.
“Embracing Russia and its brutal tactics has the potential to stoke anti-American sentiment and encourage radicalization among Muslims around the world,” former top State Department counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin wrote in The New York Times.
The Obama administration levied heavy sanctions against Moscow for its role in backing Mr. Assad’s forces, as well as what U.S. intelligence agencies concluded was Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign.
Russia and Turkey, a U.S. ally and NATO partner, have also reportedly begun joint airstrikes against Islamic State targets in al-Bab. A Russian Su-24M fighter and a Su-34 bomber, accompanied by Turkish F-16 and two F-4 jets, carried out the attack, said defense officials in Moscow.
Ankara has ordered its own offensive against Islamic State in Syria outside the purview of the U.S.-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State in the country.
The U.S. military initially refused to provide air support to the Turkish offensive in al-Bab but is now coordinating air operations with Ankara, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday.
It remains unclear whether that coordination with Turkey, coupled with Ankara’s joint effort with Russia, could have been seen by Russian defense officials as American backing of Russian air operations.
Turkey remains a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere, Capt. Davis said.