As Moscow’s air war in Syria continues, Russia launched a series of attacks on Tuesday near Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State militant group. Unlike early strikes launched by Russia, however, it appears the U.S. military had more advance warning they were coming: prior notice was sent to the Coalition Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, according to a U.S. defense official.
The official, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the subject, said the Russian strikes included both cruise missile attacks launched at sea and long-range bombers. The strikes did not affect coalition operations, and notification was “intended to help prevent accidents and ensure safe separation during operations in Syria,” the official added. It was part of an agreement reached by U.S. and Russian officials last month to deconflict air operations against the Islamic State, even though the countries remain at odds on myriad other issues.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that it marks the first time that Russia has notified the United States of a forthcoming air operation since they began launching airstrikes late in September. It draws attention to a little-known part of the war against the Islamic State: the U.S. military nerve center in Qatar used to manage air operations. Construction on it began in July 2002 and it was fully operational by February 2003, according to Air Force officials. That’s just weeks before the U.S. military rolled into Iraq to topple the government of Saddam Hussein.
The air operations center, run from Al Udeid Air Base, is a logical place for the Russians to reach out. As detailed in a piece by CBS News last month from Qatar, the center allows the U.S.-led coalition to track air operations by the Russians, who are not a part of the coalition, and any country that is. It uses a combination of satellite imagery, radio communications and other transmissions to determine where aircraft are.
The air war is growing more complicated by the day. France has launched a series of airstrikes in and around Raqqa since terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more. The French selected the targets, but coordinated with the United States, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
When the Russians first began launching airstrikes, they were criticized by the United States for targeting rebels who are fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad remains a close ally of Russian President Vladamir Putin, even as the United States pushes for his removal as part of any political settlement to the Syrian conflict.
In these most recent strikes, however, Russia struck a known hub of Islamic State activity. A senior defense official told the Wall Street Journal the strikes Tuesday hit militants. The strikes were launched after Moscow confirmed that a Russian airliner was downed last month by a bomb claimed by the Islamic State.
French President François Hollande will travel to Washington next week to meet with President Obama and to Moscow the following week to seek a “grand coalition” to battle the Islamic State, the French government said Tuesday.
Missy Ryan contributed to this post.
This post has been updated with comments from Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary.