WASHINGTON — The Pentagon began talks Thursday with Russian military officials on ways to avoid U.S. and Russian forces firing on each other in Syria as tensions escalated over Russian airstrikes that apparently are serving to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The talks, held by video teleconference, came a day after Russian fighter jets began bombing in western Syria.
Russia’s defense ministry said that over the past 24 hours it had damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to the Islamic State militant group, including a command center and ammunition depots. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, said he had no indication that the Russians had hit Islamic State targets.
Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence and surveillance for the Air Force, said Thursday that even as the U.S. tries to make sure Russian airstrikes don’t conflict with ongoing coalition operations in Syria, he does not believe there will be any real intelligence-sharing with Moscow.
“I have a low level of trust in the Russians. It’s trust but verify,” he said. “It’s easy, then, to exchange factual data where you’re going to operate. I would not envision a relationship where I would share some of my intelligence with them.”
He said a key goal is to ensure that the aircraft don’t run into each other.
He added that the Russians have been dropping ‘dumb bombs’ — munitions that are not precision-guided. And the use of such indiscriminate targeting, he said, could kill innocent civilians, which could have the unintended consequence of creating more terrorists than they kill.
Warren said any agreements reached in the Pentagon talks would be reflected in the U.S.-led coalition’s air operations, which including daily strikes on Islamic State targets in both Syria and Iraq.
“While there is always danger of conflict, of inadvertent contact” between coalition and Russian warplanes, “we are continuing with our operations,” Warren told reporters at the Pentagon. He said there was only one U.S. airstrike in Syria over the past 24 hours, compared to an average of eight strikes per day, but added that this had nothing to do with the start of Russian airstrikes Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter complained that Moscow did not use formal channels to give advance notice of its airstrikes to Washington, which is has been conducting its own airstrikes in Syria against IS for more than a year.
Carter said the Russians should not be supporting the Assad government and their military moves are “doomed to fail.”
The U.S. defense chief also said the Obama administration was open to holding direct talks with the Russians on “deconflicting” their military operations in Syria, or arranging ways to avoid firing upon each other or creating unintended incidents in the air.
“Our goals for this meeting are the following: to facilitate the flow of information between coalition forces and Russian elements that will help us maintain the safety of our personnel in the region, which is critical; to ensure that any additional Russian actions do not interfere with our coalition’s efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL, and to clarify that broader U.S. security commitments in the region remain unchanged,” Carter said.
Conducting the talks on the U.S. side are Elissa Slotkin, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolfe, the director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It was not immediately clear who was representing the Russians.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.