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U.S. generals want elevated talks with Russia about Iraq and Syria operations because of aerial collision fears

An F-22 Raptor approaches a KC-10 Extender before aerial refueling during a mission on Feb. 12. (Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks/U.S. Air Force)

BAGHDAD — Senior U.S. military officials want to elevate talks with Russia about air operations over Iraq and Syria, an effort that is meant to protect pilots from collisions but complicated by concerns at the Pentagon that doing so will make it look like Washington and Moscow have begun to collaborate on the battlefield.

The talks, known as deconfliction, began in 2015 after the Russian military deployed forces to Khmeimim Air Base, a military installation along Syria’s Mediterranean coastline that has been used to launch airstrikes against opposition forces in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Russia’s arrival in Syria complicated U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State military group in Syria, which began a year earlier.

An agreement signed between Washington and Moscow in fall 2015 called for the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a phone hotline in which a U.S. colonel in Qatar and a Russian counterpart in Syria “deconflict” operations regularly but do not share intelligence. When there are points of contention between the two militaries, though, the existing arrangement has not left many options for U.S. officers, said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the top Air Force commander in the Middle East.

“Our perspective has been that there needs to be another layer that allows us to have a more senior-level discussion, and we’ve got to work through where that layer is,” Harrigian told reporters in Baghdad this week, suggesting that adding a U.S. general with somewhere between one and three stars and a Russian counterpart would be helpful.

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Harrigian said that U.S. aircraft “on occasion get out of the way” of Russian jets. This was especially true a few months ago when both countries were launching airstrikes regularly near the Syrian city of Palmyra, he said. Such decisions could be hampering the overall operation, however.

“In essence, we had some conflicting operational desires that ultimately we ended up working our way through over time because we were never able to elevate this discussion,” Harrigian said. “Did we miss targets? I can’t say that for sure, but I would tell you that optimally we would have gone after that in a different manner.”

U.S. military officials also have advocated upgrading the technology used to communicate with the Russians, which up until now has consisted of “little more than a commercial phone line,” said Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. Doing so, he said, would boost the safety of flight operations, “and that’s certainly a big reason for considering making the communication more robust.”

The discussions are complicated by legislation passed in 2014 after Moscow’s military bloody intervention into Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. With few exceptions, the law banned military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Russia unless Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis can make an exception on issues where he considers it in U.S. interests, but is not ready to do so anytime soon, according to two people familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

During a Feb. 16 visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, Mattis said that the conditions are not right presently for the U.S. and Russian militaries to work together and that Moscow would have to “prove itself” first.

“We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level, but our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward so that Russia, living up to its commitment, can return to a partnership of sorts here with NATO,” Mattis said.

Senior U.S. military officials and the Obama administration last year discussed establishing a new, higher-level channel for communicating with Russia about Syria that could have involved three-star generals, but Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter opted not to make a change before leaving office, according to people who were aware of discussions at the time and spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly.

The individuals said that one of the concerns was potentially creating the appearance that Russia and the United States were carving up sections of Syrian airspace for their differing missions, effectively collaborating. Another was that senior U.S. military officials already could consult senior civilian officials at the Pentagon in cases where they ran into any difficulty with the Russians.

Elissa Slotkin, one former senior defense official involved in the discussions at the time, said that until the Trump administration makes policy decisions about how it wants to interact with Russia in regard to Syria, it would be unwise to increase interaction between the U.S. and Russian militaries any more than needed to keep pilots safe. She said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis might address the issue in a plan he has been directed to deliver to Trump by the end of the month on how to accelerate the war against the Islamic State, she said.

Concerns about a potential collision in the air have persisted as U.S., Russian, Syrian and Turkish aircraft increasingly converge on the same areas of Syria, like the city of al-Bab. Pilots who have recently flown combat sorties over Iraq and Syria said that existing ways of deconflicting don’t always work well and Russian pilots sometimes do not respond to radio communications.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing that flies combat missions against the Islamic State, said that the military has opted to fly advanced F-22 Raptors above U.S. aircraft in a “stack” formation in part because their sensors can better keep track of other aircraft. At times, he said, information gathered in the F-22 has been used to shift other U.S. planes to make room for an incoming Russian aircraft.

In October, U.S. military officials were particularly alarmed by an incident over Syria in which a Russian jet passed within a half-mile of a coalition E-3 Sentry, better known as an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane. The encounter was close enough to knock out the radar on the AWACS, Corcoran said.

Operations have improved since then, Corcoran said, but he said he’d still welcome additional dialogue. Russian jets not only encounter American aircraft over Syria, he said, but over the Iraqi city of Mosul and surrounding areas, as Russian jets travel to Syria from southern Russia after crossing south down the Caspian Sea and west over Iran.

“I think it would be helpful,” Corcoran said of elevating talks. “It’s never a bad thing to have [military-to-military] ties. How many times during the Cold War did we say that having them stopped bad things from happening? We all have our objectives, but we have to talk.”

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford was open to elevating deconfliction talks to higher levels of the military, individuals familiar with previous discussions said. He met Feb. 16 with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, in Baku, Azerbaijan, marking their first face-to-face meeting since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014.

A spokesman for Dunford, Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, said that the U.S. military continues to ensure the safety of flights over Syria and concerns are met through existing communication channels but declined to characterize Dunford’s talks with the Russian general.

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