The Pentagon may soon have to decide whether to begin detailed military coordination with Russia as the former Cold War adversary is poised to begin its own combat air operations over the multisided civil war in Syria.
Russia reportedly has assembled dozens of attack aircraft at an air base in Latakia, on Syria's Mediterranean coast. The fleet includes 12 Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft and another 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft, U.S. officials said
The U.S. has been flying daily sorties over Syria for months, targeting Islamic State militants on the ground. The potentially imminent launch of Russian aircraft into the same air space vastly complicates that mission and puts U.S. pilots at risk.
For now, U.S. and Russia are at odds as American officials say they will support Russian operations against Islamic State militants but not in support of the Syrian regime, a distinction that blurs on the battlefield.
"There is a potential for a role for the Russians to play there," Peter Cook, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. "At the same time, anything that the Russians do that would be seen as supporting, further enhancing the capabilities of the Syrian government would be ... counterproductive, and ... more like fanning the flame."
The U.S. repeatedly has blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad for the civil war and called for him to step down. Yet Assad has support not only from Russia but also from Shiite Iran.
Talking with the Russians in detail about Syria operations would help keep the two nuclear-armed militaries from coming into direct conflict, said retired Gen. David Petraeus, who testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill about U.S. operations in the Middle East.
It would "make sure … that there is not an operation carried out by either side that is misconstrued by the other, is misinterpreted and ends up in shooting where there doesn't need to be shooting," said Petraeus.
A potential flash point for the two countries could be the skies over Aleppo, Syria's largest city, about 100 miles from the air base with Russian aircraft and a frequent target of U.S. airstrikes in recent months.
The U.S. suspended military-to-military relations with Russia in March 2014 shortly after Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine.
But last week the U.S. and Russia appeared to end an 18-month freeze in military-to-military relations and to begin pursuing possible "deconfliction" between the American and Russian forces in Syria.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter called his Russian counterpart to begin a "military-to-military conversation about what is happening on the ground … to avoid any possible miscalculation or misunderstanding," a senior U.S. defense official said Friday.
A Sept. 15 satellite image with annotations provided by GeoNorth, AllSource Analysis, Airbus shows Russian tanks and armed personnel carriers at an air base in Latakia province, Syria.
Photo Credit: AP
Russian construction at the Latakia air base includes reinforcing aircraft runways, building helicopter pads, installing mobile housing units and putting up several new buildings, including an air traffic control tower, according to publicly available satellite imagery.
The buildup is one of Moscow's most aggressive military provocations in years and could be a vital lifeline for the Assad regime, whose forces have suffered a series of battlefield losses to Islamic State extremists and other rebel groups.
The U.S. and Russia both are eager to defeat the Islamic State militants in Syria but otherwise are backing different factions in the civil war.
The level of communication and cooperation that will emerge between the two militaries remains unclear. Cooperation could include sharing tactical information about flight plans or troop movements to avoid in-air collisions or inadvertent strikes. The two militaries could coordinate strategic plans to defeat Islamic State militants. And they could discuss military aspects of a long-term political solution to the four-and-a-half-year-old civil war.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.