Top general: US did not notify Russia on Syria targets
The United States used its deconfliction phone line with Russia prior to Friday’s airstrikes in Syria, but did not tell the Russians what the United States was targeting, the U.S. military’s top general said Friday night.
“We specifically identified these targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved, and we used our normal deconfliction channels — those were active this week — to work through the airspace issues and so forth,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a Pentagon briefing. “We did not do any coordination with the Russians on the strikes, nor did we pre-notify them.”
Dunford was speaking alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis after President Trump announced at the White House that he ordered airstrikes against targets associated with Syria’s chemical weapons production.
The operation, done in coordination with U.S. allies Britain and France, was ordered in response to an apparent chemical weapons attack last weekend that the United States and allies have blamed on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Trump sent a tweet on Wednesday warning Russia to “get ready” for missiles headed toward its ally Syria and spent days deciding on the exact response with France and the U.K. before the strikes took place on Friday.
Dunford’s comments Friday contrast with how the United States handled last year’s cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase. In that case, the United States used the deconfliction line to notify Moscow in advance.
Russia and the United States set up the so-called deconfliction line in October 2015, after Russian air forces intervened in the Syrian civil war, to prevent each country’s forces from operating in the same area and thus clashing with each other.
As Friday’s action was being debated over the course of the week, some, including Mattis, expressed concern about the situation worsening if Russia retaliates.
“We’re trying to stop the murder of innocent people, but, on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control, if you get my drift on that,” he said at congressional hearing.
Asked repeatedly about deconfliction with the Russians on Friday’s strikes, Dunford maintained that the only communication was about airspace.
“The only communications that took place specifically associated with this operation before the targets were struck was the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria,” he said. “We did not coordinate targets or any planning with the Russians.”
He said he was unsure how the Russians responded when the United States used the deconfliction line Friday, but claimed that Moscow probably did not find it out of the ordinary.
“That kind of information, to put it in perspective, is passed routinely every day and every night, so they may not have found anything unusual about that particular airspace deconfliction,” he said.
And while the Syrian government’s air defenses engaged during the strike, Dunford said he was “not aware of any Russian activity,” though he added more details might be available in the morning.
He also said the U.S. commander in Syria has changed the force protection levels for the 2,000 U.S. troops there fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in case of retaliation.
“As you can image, the commander always takes prudent measures, especially in an environment that we’re in tonight,” Dunford said. “So they did make adjustments.”