WASHINGTON — A day after Russian jets began strikes in Syria, the US and Russian militaries opened discussions about deconflicting air operations but it is unclear when, or if, a solution will be sorted out.
Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary, announced Thursday that military representatives from both sides talked for about an hour this morning about potential ways to avoid an incident as Russia ramps up operations in an airspace already crowded by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
Elissa Slotkin, US acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, was the senior on the call. Both sides exchanged suggestions for how to ensure safe flights.
Cook would not go into detail about what the Russians offered in the talks, but said the US believes "aircrews should follow international rules of safety of flight; ensure navigation through professional airmanship, including the use of appropriate and active communications; and avoiding actions which should cause unnecessary confrontation.
"One is to use particular international frequencies that can be used in a time of distress, and … what language it would be in?" Cook used as an example of topics discussed. "Those are some of the questions we're trying to address in the course of these conversations to try and make it as efficient and professional as possible for these aircrews."
US Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted the talks as a "muted response of pitiful pleas" in the face of Russian actions.
"This begs the obvious question: Are we trying to 'deconflict' with Russian air operations that target US-trained rebels? Are we trying to 'deconflict' with Russian air operations that kill innocent civilians, including women and children? Are we trying to 'deconflict' with Russian air operations to keep the Assad regime in power and in so doing prolong this horrific conflict?," McCain wrote in his statement.
"Unfortunately, it appears 'deconfliction' is merely an Orwellian euphemism for this administration's acceptance of Russia's expanded role in Syria, and as a consequence, for Assad's continued brutalization of the Syrian people."
The talks occurred more than 24 hours after Russia first launched strikes inside Syria, creating an environment where coalition forces could potentially run into Russian counterparts in the air.
Such an occurrence That situation seems poised to become more likely as operations for both sides continue, in the coming days, which would seem to suggesting that time is of the essence in these talks. However, the next step in the discussions is appears to be unclear.
Multiple times when discussing the call, Cook noted that there is the "possibility" or anticipation of another call in the coming days, but said there was no follow-on discussion scheduled.
Cook denied that indicated a lack of urgency from the Pentagon to complete talks, noting that the discussions concluded shortly before his press conference and that both sides needed to digest and resume talks.
Slotkin also used the call to reiterate concerns, raised yesterday by US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, about the location of Russian airstrikes, which the Pentagon says have fallen in areas not controlled by ISIS.
Cook echoed Carter’s statement yesterday that Russia has yet to strike ISIS-controlled territory, although he declined to go into details about who or what the Russian strikes targeted.