Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in 2015, has helped President Bashar al-Assad regain dominance in the country’s long civil war. The United States, meanwhile, has been operating in Syria since 2014 in a separate mission targeting the Islamic State.
While the two militaries have focused their operations on different areas, they have had close encounters in Syrian airspace. In February 2018, U.S. forces killed a large group of Russian contractors who officials in Washington said had opened fire on American and partner forces in eastern Syria.
Votel spoke a day after Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said Putin, in his one-on-one summit Monday with Trump in Helsinki, had raised “specific and interesting proposals” about how the two countries could cooperate in Syria.
The lack of clarity across the U.S. government since the summit about what that and other proposals entailed, and what they could mean for the Pentagon, has created confusion.
Votel said Centcom had received “no specific direction at this point.”
“We have received no further direction than we’ve currently been operating under,” Votel said.
Russian officials have spoken more expansively than their U.S. counterparts about the substance of the two leaders’ conversation in Finland. Antonov, who spoke to reporters in Moscow, said one idea under discussion was a joint U.S.-Russian counterterrorism campaign in Syria, adding Trump had “listened . . . with interest.”
Putin, speaking to Russian diplomats on Thursday, said he and Trump had discussed “ways to ensure security on the Golan Heights in the course of operation in Syria,” possibly referring to some kind of U.S. involvement in an earlier Israeli-Russian agreement to keep Iranian-backed forces away from Syria’s southern border with Israel.
Nonmilitary officials in Washington, however, said this week no agreements on Syria were reached in Helsinki. Votel said he was not aware of any potential bargain involving the United States, Russia and the Syrian government.
The general also pointed out that Centcom was barred under the National Defense Authorization Act, which guides military operations, from “coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating with the Russian forces.” Those restrictions were enacted after Moscow's seizure of Crimea in 2014.
Going beyond current communications, Votel suggested, would require a legal waiver or some other action by Congress.
As part of limited military-to-military interactions, the Pentagon maintains a phone channel with the Russian military in the Middle East as part of its “deconfliction” efforts with Moscow on Syria.
“I won’t speculate on other things that we might do or might be done outside of Centcom here, but for us, steady as she goes,” he said.
Asked about the lack of clarity about possible outcomes of the Helsinki summit, Votel said that did not pose a challenge to Centcom as it made plans to complete its mission against the Islamic State in Syria. While officials had hoped for a swift end to the U.S.-led campaign against the group, which has been pushed out of major urban areas, operations have been slowed by a simmering conflict between partner Kurdish forces and Turkish-backed groups.
“I think we’re extraordinarily adaptable here,” he said. “But we’re also very, very clear in what our mission is, and we continue to pursue that with purpose.”
Ryan Goodman, a former Pentagon official who is a professor at the New York University School of Law, said Congress allows the secretary of defense to issue a waiver to exempt the Pentagon from the legal restriction on military cooperation with Russia.
If the Trump administration decided to pursue any cooperation with Russia in Syria, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in theory could take that step.
Goodman said Mattis would have to “tread lightly.”
“If the department is seen to abuse the authority Congress provided, legislators may react by imposing even more onerous funding restrictions in the future,” he said.
Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.