Defense department denied Russian government claim that US-led coalition planes aided Isis mission, but Trump administration open to future joint strikes
The Pentagon has flatly denied a Russian government claim that both nations warplanes conducted a joint combat mission in Syria.
On Monday, the Russian defense ministry claimed to have received coordinates of Islamic State positions via a US-Russian communications channel, and that two jets from the US-led coalition participated in a strike alongside Russian aircraft.
But the Pentagon, now helmed by Trumps appointee James Mattis, issued a round denial of the Russian account.
The Department of Defense is not coordinating airstrikes with the Russian military in Syria, said spokesman Eric Pahon, who added that he was not aware of any coalition member aiding Russia in this instance.
The White House, however, signaled it was open in principle to joint military strikes with Russia in Syria.
The press secretary, Sean Spicer, said Trump would work with any country that shares our interest in defeating Isis, saying the inclination applied to Russia or anyone else.
The incident comes as many around the world are looking for tangible evidence of a rapprochement between the two traditional adversaries now that Donald Trump has been inaugurated president.
Existing US policy has been to deconflict the airspace over Syria used by both nations air forces. Under former defense secretary Ashton Carter, Russian and US commanders established a hotline to inform one another of potential airspace congestion, in the interest of avoiding a violent miscalculation.
On 17 October, a Russian fighter jet flew within half a mile of a US aircraft over Syria, closer than wed like, a US military spokesman said at the time. The US, which communicated through the hotline with the Russians after the incident, assessed that the Russians did not fly near the US aircraft with nefarious intent.
But the incident underscored a wariness that US military officers have felt toward the Russians since Moscow began waging its own war in Syria in late 2015. Such wariness led to a split between the Pentagon and the state department over intensifying cooperation with the Russians in an attempt to stabilize the Syrian civil war.
Pahon emphasized that the hotline represented the extent of US-Russian interaction in the region.
DoD maintains a channel of communication with the Russian military focused solely on ensuring the safety of aircrews and de-confliction of coalition and Russian operations in Syria, Pahon said.
Speculation is rife that the US and Russia are set to enter a new era, in which Moscow would have unprecedented influence in Washington. Earlier this month, the US intelligence apparatus concluded that Russia intervened in the US election to Trumps benefit. Furthermore, Trump pledged to form new alliances against radical Islamic terrorism in his inaugural address, a seeming reference to a coming thaw in US-Russia relations.
Trumps nominee for secretary of state, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has received an order of friendship from the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. This was the subject of much alarm from senators during Tillersons confirmation hearing. But opposition to Tillerson in the GOP-led Senate appeared to collapse on Monday, ahead of a scheduled positive confirmation vote. Senator Marco Rubio announced he would support Tillersons nomination, following Russia hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who said they would back Tillerson despite continuing reservations over his past dealings with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin.
Yet in his own confirmation hearing, Mattis expressed deep skepticism of Russia, suggesting that the Pentagon would remain a well of opposition to any rapprochement. Mattis said the US would need to be clear-eyed about Putin, who he said was trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.