U.S. and Russian military generals met face-to-face this week after Russian airstrikes injured U.S.-backed fighters in Syria, a U.S. spokesman said Thursday.
“The discussions emphasized the need to share operational graphics and locations to ensure that prevention of accidental targeting or other possible frictions that would distract from the defeat of ISIS,” Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters during a Pentagon briefing. “We will continue to deconflict with the Russians at every level to ensure that we remain focused on fighting ISIS, all while protecting coalition and our partner forces.”
Dillion said that, to his knowledge, this was the first meeting of its kind.
On Saturday, Russian forces hit the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while U.S. special forces were nearby. Six SDF fighters were injured, while U.S. troops were unhurt.
Both the SDF and pro-Syrian government forces, including the Russians, are advancing on the city of Deir ez-Zor, which is held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
On Thursday, Russia’s defense ministry accused the SDF of twice attacking Syrian troops with mortars and rockets and said a warning has been issued to the U.S.
“Attempts to open fire from SDF-controlled areas would be immediately met with retaliation," Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. "The firing positions in those areas will be immediately destroyed with all the arsenal at our disposal."
Dillon declined to discuss the defense ministry's threat specifically but said the U.S. will continue to deconflict with Russia.
Dillon likewise declined to disclose where this week’s meeting happened beyond that it was in the region, saying there may be more meetings in the future. The meeting happened in the “last couple days” and lasted at least an hour, he added.
The U.S. and Russia have had a deconfliction telephone line since October 2015 after Russian air forces intervened in the Syrian civil war. The communications channel was meant to avoid mid-air incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft.
In this week’s meeting, the U.S. and Russian generals “laid down maps and graphics to discuss where those deconfliction measures would be put into place,” Dillon said.
Asked whether that represents coordination with the Russians more than it does deconfliction, Dillon said there was a “natural progression” as forces converge in one place.
“Now that we've gotten into Deir ez-Zor, that needs to be upped a level, and the level of detail that is required for the deconfliction has to increase,” he said.
Dillon also said there are three separate lines of communication for deconfliction: the original one for airspace, one for the ground and one for the top U.S. general in the war against ISIS to communicate with his Russian counterpart.
But U.S. forces on the ground are not speaking with Russian forces on the ground, he added.