Pentagon: Russia agreed not to strike US forces in Syria

Pentagon: Russia agreed not to strike US forces in Syria
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The Pentagon revealed Thursday that Russia granted a U.S. request not to target American special operations forces deployed to northern Syria, a previously unreported cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. 

The Pentagon made the request to the Russians after a U.S. decision to send the special operations forces into Syria last year, according to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook at a briefing.

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"When the decision was made to put special operators into Syria, there was a formal request made geographic areas specifically, not pinpoint locations, to protect the safety of our people," Cook said.  

"This was a [request] made out of abundance of safety for our operators on the ground, and this was done, geographical areas writ large, not specific location, and not times," he said. 

Russia also outlined some areas, such as airfields, that it did not want U.S. forces flying close to, said Air Force Lt. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command in a briefing with reporters. 

"They have actually come to us and -- they've asked a lot of things of us, not specifically in, you know, areas not to fly or drop," Brown said. "All of this is outside of the MOU [memorandum of understanding]."

Cook denied that the U.S. has granted any other Russian requests or cooperated further outside of the agreement. He said the request originated at the "highest levels" of the Pentagon.

The Pentagon had previously denied any cooperation with the Russians, other than a formal memorandum of understanding about air safety, to prevent the two militaries' air forces from colliding by accident over Syria. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Oct. 30 had said, when asked by a reporter, that there was "no intent" to discuss with Russia the deployment of U.S. troops to Syria.  

"I think that Secretary Kerry is discussing the overall Syria situation. But I -- we don't intend to discuss that with -- I -- this particular kind of activity, and again, they're operating in an entirely different part of the country," he said en route to Alaska.  

But Thursday's revelation revealed that cooperation with Russia that goes beyond that.

After Moscow launched an air campaign to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad in September, U.S. officials said they would not ask Russians to avoid striking certain areas where U.S.-trained and backed rebels were operating. 

Cook said the Pentagon’s request to the Russians does not extend protection for Syrian rebels trained or otherwise backed by the U.S.

The Obama administration announced its decision to send about 50 special operations forces into Syria in October, as part of a plan to accelerate the campaign against the terrorist group. 
 
On Nov. 17, weeks after the decision to send U.S. troops to Syria was made, the Pentagon again denied cooperation with Russia outside of the memorandum of understanding. 
 
"There's been no additional talk of further cooperation or -- or coordination with the Russians at this point," Cook said at the time.

A senior defense official told The Hill the U.S. request to the Russians came after Nov. 17, but before the special operators deployed to Syria last month, and that the Pentagon had not been asked about the issue since the decision was made.  
 
"Their policies of supporting the Assad regime continue, in our view, to be counterproductive... . And so until they alter that policy, we don't see much of an area for -- for further cooperation," he said.

This story was updated at 1:50 p.m.