Pentagon Asks Russia to Avoid Areas in Syria Where Special Operators Are Deployed

By Patrick Goodenough | February 19, 2016 | 4:19am EST
U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers undergo combat marksman skills training in Kabul province, Afghanistan in February 2014. (Photo: DoD/Spc. Connor Mendez, U.S. Army)

( – After saying for months that the U.S. is not cooperating with Russia in Syria – beyond basic air safety “deconfliction” measures – a senior military official disclosed Thursday that the Pentagon has asked Russia to avoid areas where U.S. Special Forces troops are located in northern Syria.

The U.S. and Russia are both carrying out airstrikes in Syria – the U.S. since the fall of 2014 as part of a coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Russians since last September targeting what it calls “terrorist” groups, in a campaign of support for the Assad regime.

Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told reporters by video link from Qatar that areas where U.S. Special Forces troops are deployed had been made known in general terms to the Russians.

“Not specific areas, but certainly broad areas to maintain a level of safety for our forces that are on the ground,” he said.

“The areas we’ve actually identified are areas we do have coalition SOF [special operations forces] in Syria,” Brown said. “So, it’s not specific areas, but fairly broad areas, to maintain a level of safety for our forces that are there on the ground.”

Asked whether the U.S. had offered the Russians anything in exchange, Brown said that the Russians had requested – even before the Special Forces request was made – that the U.S. steer clear of airfields being used by Russia in its Syria campaign.

“Typically, we don’t fly there anyway,” he said. “So, that hasn’t been an issue.”

A reporter pointed out that the Pentagon will not tell the American people where the special forces troops are deployed, for security reasons, but is telling the Russians, then asked, “Do you have any assurances that they’re not going to provide that information to ISIS or to leak that information?”

“I don’t have any assurances, really, from the Russians,” Brown replied. “But – because all it’s going to do is escalate things. And I don’t think the Russians want to escalate against the coalition.”

Brown said he could not say whether Russia had been notified before or after the Special Forces troops went in.

“I don’t remember the exact date or time frame associated, but it was all kind of real close together,” he said.

He said the decision to tell the Russians had been made at a “higher level,” adding that it had been done “through diplomatic channels.”

‘Not pinpoint locations’

The Obama administration at the end of last October announced plans to deploy up to 50 Special Forces troops in northern Syria to help what it calls “moderate opposition forces” in their fight against ISIS. On Dec. 14 President Obama revealed that a small group was now on the ground.

After Brown’s portion of Thursday’s briefing was completed, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook offered to “clarify” and “amplify.”

“When the decision was made to put special operators into Syria, there was a formal request made [of the Russians] – geographic areas specifically, not pinpoint locations, to protect the safety of our people,” he said.

“Geographical areas writ large,” he added. “Not specific locations and not times.”

Asked several times why the Pentagon has been insisting that there was no cooperation with Russia – apart from the “deconfliction” Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to avoid any incidents in the air – Cook repeated that the decision was taken “to maintain the safety of our special operators on the ground.”

“I’m not going to get into details, other than to say, that there was an effort made to protect the safety of our people from the risk of Russian airstrikes,” he said.

“Up to this point, they [the Russians] have honored this request.”

Cook said the interaction occurred between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense, and that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was “aware of this.”

Unconvinced that Russia’s airstrikes are genuinely designed to counter ISIS, the U.S. has refused to coordinate with Moscow – beyond the “deconfliction” MOU.

On Oct. 30, the day the administration announced the Special Forces plan, a senior Defense official in a background briefing said the Russians have not been told where the troops would be deployed.

“Are you going to tell them where the U.S. troops are going to be?” a reporter asked. “You’ve not notified them of the location?”

“We have not notified, and we – we do not feel the need to notify them of their location,” the official replied. “They are keenly aware of what happens, as we are, over the skies of Syria, and coming in and out of Syria, and we expect them to maintain a safe and responsible distance from us.”

Pressed on the issue, the official said later during the briefing, “As of right now, we have no plan to communicate with the Russians, but we would always do whatever we had to to protect our forces going into a new place.”

On the same day, Carter was asked the same question, en route to Alaska.

“Could you say whether you have or will talk to the Russians about having them steer clear of the area where those U.S. forces will be?” the defense secretary was asked.

“We don't intend to discuss that with – I – this particular kind of activity,” Carter said. “And again, they’re operating in an entirely different part of the country.”

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