The U.S. and Russian coordination in the skies over Syria expanded Tuesday as Russia continues to ramp up its targeting of Islamic State militants in Syria.
Russian military officials for the first time Tuesday morning notified the U.S. Combined Joint Operations Center in Qatar about their plans to strike Islamic State targets in Raqqa, Syria, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday.
Some of the Russian attacks on ISIS, as the Islamic State is also known, included cruise missiles and long-range bombers, according to a defense official.
It marked the first the first time the two militaries have exercised the pre-strike notification mechanisms in the military deconfliction agreement forged Oct. 20 that was designed to prevent mishaps or misunderstandings, Cook said.
While the U.S. and Russia are not coordinating on specific targets in Syria, the Russians do appear to have recently shifted the focus of their airstrikes toward the Islamic State rather than other Syrian rebel groups.
"It does seem, at least in recent days, there's been more of a [Russian] focus on ISIL, and we welcome that," Cook said in a briefing with Pentagon reporters.
Russia has vowed to intensify its targeting of the Islamic State after its own investigators determined that a bomb caused the Oct. 31 crash of a Russian passenger jet out of Egypt that killed 224 people. Many experts believe the Islamic State group is responsible for the bomb.
Russia began conducting airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30 in support of the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, but most of those bombs were hitting targets outside of ISIS-held territory, aimed instead at other rebel groups battling Assad's regime.
The Russian notification on Tuesday came with enough advance warning for U.S. planes to get out of the way, Cook said.
"There was advance warning ... giving us the opportunity, if we had had aircraft in the area, that we could have made adjustments. That wasn't necessary in this case," Cook said, noting that the U.S. and its coalition partners were not conducting any operations in that area at that time.
He declined to say how the U.S. military officials in Qatar might react if Russia notified them about strikes that conflicted with planned U.S. operations, calling that scenario hypothetical.
Cook emphasized that the cooperation with Russia remains limited to the safety protocols outlined in the Oct. 20 memorandum of understanding between the two militaries.
"We're not coordinating or cooperating with the Russians in terms of targets, but we are taking these steps, these important steps to make sure that our pilots, our crews, and the Russians' crews, for that matter, do not come into conflict with one another. And in this particular instance, that system — those protocols did work effectively," Cook said.
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.