Pentagon brushes off Russia's Syria warning

Pentagon brushes off Russia's Syria warning
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Defense officials on Thursday reacted coolly to the Russians' warning not to strike Syrian regime targets, saying U.S. air forces would continue to conduct its current operations in Syria against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"We'll continue to conduct our operations as we have for months now over Syria, and we'll continue to do so taking every possible step we need to to ensure the safety of our air crews," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters. 

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Earlier in the day, a Russian military spokesman warned the U.S. against striking Syrian regime military targets, noting that its air defense systems in Syria could fend off any attack. 

"I would recommend our colleagues in Washington to carefully weigh possible consequences of the fulfillment of such plans," Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Thursday, according to the Associated Press. 

Russia announced Tuesday that it had moved the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to its naval base in Tartus, Syria, to defend the base and its ships. It would be capable of shooting down aircraft and ballistic missiles. 

The announcement came amid renewed talk in Washington of pursuing military options to end the civil war in Syria, after negotiations between the U.S. and Russia to end the civil war were formally suspended Monday. 

Currently, U.S. forces are only targeting ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, but the White House is discussing options to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate an end to the civil war, which is estimated to have killed more than 400,000.

Military options reportedly include striking targets associated with Assad's air force, establishing safe zones inside Syria and supplying anti-regime rebels with anti-aircraft systems. 

Russia began a military campaign in Syria in September 2015 to shore up its ally, Assad, against anti-regime rebels and has helped turn the tide of the war in the regime's favor. 

The Russian military spokesman also warned that U.S. airstrikes could put Russian forces on the ground in Syria at risk and that it has taken steps to protect those forces. A current channel with the U.S. used to deconflict operations in Syria would not allow for enough time to prevent accidents, he said.  

"It must be understood that Russian air defense missile crews will unlikely have time to clarify via the hotline the exact flight program of the missiles or the ownership of their carriers," Konashenkov said, in a reference to U.S. aircraft.

Cook brushed off that threat, saying the channel of communication has so far been effective in deconfliction of U.S. and Russian operations. 

"It's been an effective means of communication to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation. And we will continue to employ that line of communication in an appropriate fashion. We would encourage the Russians to do the same," he said. 

A U.S. defense official characterized the deployment of the S-300 system as not a new threat, especially since the Russians already had the more advanced S-400 air defense missile system in Syria. 

The official told The Hill that U.S. forces will monitor the systems closely and watch if they become "active." Otherwise, the official said, they will likely be used for testing. 

Russia also has "an array" of other surface-to-air missiles at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia, according to The Associated Press.