US has no plans yet for Syrian airspace despite Russian presence

US has no plans yet for Syrian airspace despite Russian presence
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The Pentagon has no plans yet for how it would deconflict its air operations in Syria with Russia's, despite signs Moscow is establishing a forward air operating base to help bolster the Assad regime, according to U.S. officials.  

While Defense Department officials say they are concerned about U.S. aircraft operating in Syrian airspace along with Russia's, they acknowledge there are no plans yet on how to handle it. 

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A U.S. official said on background that there is "no idea" on how it would happen, and a senior defense official, also speaking on background, confirmed there were no plans yet "because there is nothing to deconflict yet." 

However, there is growing concern about what Russia might do with the forward air operating base near Latakia, which defense officials say they can only speculate to at this point. 

It is not clear whether Russia plans to use the air base to receive military equipment and supplies for the Syrian regime or to conduct its own airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — which would make the need for deconfliction critical. 

Deconfliction would be necessary to avoid not only any incidents between the U.S.-led coalition and Russia but also potential Russian targeting of coalition-backed Syrian rebels and groups, as well as civilian deaths. 

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said on Tuesday that the Department would not talk about "hypotheticals" at this point. 

"We're not talking about deconfliction right now, because we're not seeing those flights at this moment in time and we're not talking about hypotheticals at this point." he said.

It is also unclear how the U.S. military would deconflict the airspace with Russian officials, given a suspension of the U.S.-Russia military-to-military relationship after Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Cook told reporters Tuesday that Defense Secretary Ash Carter has not spoken to his Russian counterpart since he took office in February, even though he said the suspension of the military relationship would not prevent that. 

"Right now, [Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes Kerry#AnybodyButTrump2020 trends as Trump rolls out reelection campaign #AnybodyButTrump2020 trends as Trump rolls out reelection campaign Orlando Sentinel declines to endorse Trump in 2020 MORE] is taking the lead with regard to discussions with Russia," Cook said at a Pentagon briefing. "If it comes a time for the secretary of defense to engage with his Russian counterpart, certainly he'll do that.”

But, he added, ”We’re still tracking developments closely. We're in touch with our allies and partners.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his continuing support for Syrian President Bashar Assad as necessary to defeat ISIS but did not indicate his plans for the air base. 

"We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against terrorist aggression, are offering and will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance," Putin said at a meeting of former Soviet nations in Tajikistan, according to The Associated Press. 

"Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that contry and the region as a whole and to protect the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Syrian people from destruction," he said. 

President Obama on Friday warned Putin against continuing to support the Assad regime in its two-front civil war with ISIS and moderate opposition groups, but Russia has continued to send shipments to the airfield. 

Since last week, Russia has been flying about two military cargo flights a day into the airfield, according to officials. Last week there were six to seven flights, and this week there are even more, officials said.  

Russia now has seven T-90 tanks, dozens of armored personnel carriers and about 200 naval infantry troops at the airfield. That presence is consistent with a force protection unit for airport security, but there is also housing being built that could sustain 1,500 troops, the U.S. official told The Hill. 

So far, there are no shipments of any fighter jets or aircraft to the airfield, officials said.