US and Russian defense chiefs discuss military operations in Syria

US and Russian defense chiefs discuss military operations in Syria
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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Russia's Ministry of Defense discussed in an hour-long phone call on Friday the two countries' military operations in Syria to avoid any unintended conflicts between their forces, a senior defense official said Friday.

The U.S.-led coalition is flying air operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) there, and Russia may soon begin its own air campaign. 

"They talked about a broad range of issues in Syria, including the most immediate issue of deconfliction," the official said. Carter and his Russian counterpart also talked about restarting the U.S.-Russia military relationship, suspended since Moscow invaded Ukraine in March 2014.

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However, the official would not say whether the conversation on Syria was specifically about air operations, despite the rapid buildup of Russian forces and equipment at an airfield in western Syria.

U.S. officials say Russia now has fighter jets and attack aircraft at the airfield near Latakia, in addition to tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and more than 200 troops -- in a clear signal that Moscow plans to begin air operations soon. 

The senior defense official said the discussion was to "avoid any possibility of misunderstanding or miscalculation on the military side ... between the coalition and Russia" and the talks did not mean that Russians have started combat operations in Syria.

"There was no discussion of immediate Russian military activity," the official said. "They're talking about avoiding any misunderstanding going forward."

The Pentagon official said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu characterized its military activities in Syria as "defensive in nature and that they were designed to honor commitments made to the Syrian government," which has been battling ISIS and a rebel uprising for four years. 

It remains unclear what the U.S. and Russia consider "defensive" actions.

Russian officials say their activities are intended to counter ISIS, although defense officials on background say they are concerned Russian operations may also target U.S.-backed rebel groups and affect civilians.

The official said the call between the defense chiefs began at 8:45 a.m., and lasted for about 50 minutes. The call was initiated by Russia.

The call came after Russia requested that Secretary of State John Kerry reopen military talks between the two countries. Kerry has been taking the lead on discussions with Russia for the administration.