Concerns were made during the initial talks between the U.S. and Russia to keep their respective military aircraft from coming into contact in the skies, where both countries are now conducting Syria airstrikes.
The talks, held by video link, were described as “cordial and professional” by Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, who said both sides each presented proposals for minimizing potential risks to their pilots.
The U.S. side was represented by Elissa Slotkin, the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs and vice Admiral Frank Pandolfe, the Joint Staff’s Director of Strategic Plans and Policy.
Cook said that during the call Slotkin “reiterated Secretary Carter’s position that the focus of military activities in Syria should be on defeating ISIL, she also noted U.S. concern that areas targeted by Russia so far are not ISIL strongholds.” ISIL is the acronym used by the U.S. government to describe ISIS.
He did not characterize the Russian’s response to Slotkin’s comments.
The talks included practical discussions about what international frequencies should be used for distress calls and what language should be used in contacts between aircraft.
“Those are some of the questions that we’re trying to address,” said Cook. “And in the course of these conversations to try and make it as efficient and professional as possible for these air crews so that there is no misjudgment or miscalculation in the air.”
On Monday, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that both nations should out details to hold the talks as it appeared that Russia would soon begin air operations in Syria.
Two days later, U.S. officials were surprised that Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria even before details had been worked out for when to hold the talks.
The U.S. did not receive advance notification of the start of the Russian airstrikes until an hour before when a Russian general went to the American embassy in Baghdad to request that American aircraft vacate the area where the missions would strike.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter later described that initial Russian contact as a “drop in” and labeled that kind of notification as “unprofessional.” He told reporters that his goals for the talks to “de-conflict” Syrian airspace would be “to facilitate the flow of information between coalition forces and Russian elements that will help us maintain the safety of our personnel in the region, which is critical.
To ensure that any additional Russian actions do not interfere with our coalition’s efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. And to clarify that broader U.S. security commitments in the region remain unchanged.”
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said the Russian strikes had not affected U.S. air operations over Syria.
Warren confirmed that Russian aircraft conducted more than half a dozen strikes on Wednesday, but did not have information as to how many airstrikes may have taken place today.
“In the last 24 hours, we have conducted several sorties over Syria,” said Col. Steve Warren. “We have not altered operations in Syria to accommodate new players on the battlefield.”
While noting that there is always the risk of a miscalculation or inadvertent contact involving aircraft from different nations over the skies of Syria, he also noted there are “a lot of square miles in Syria”and American pilots “have terrific situation awareness.”
Warren said that even though Russia has claimed that it is striking at ISIS targets inside Syria, “We don’t believe that they struck ISIL targets.“
A U.S. official told ABC News that Wednesday’s airstrikes near Homs and Hama struck al Nusra and Free Syrian Army locations. The Free Syrian Army is a moderate opposition force that has received assistance from the U.S. for several years. There were also reports that other groups that have received training and equipment from the CIA were also struck by Russian airstrikes.
“When they said that they planned to strike ISIL. And yet, where they struck yesterday, we don’t believe there was any ISIL there,” said Warren. “So that’s a problem, right?,”said Warren. “The Russians have said that they’re going to do one thing, and here they are doing something different than that, which we, of course, have seen before.”