Washington (AFP) – The Pentagon has asked Russia to stay away from parts of northern Syria where US special operations forces are training local fighters to combat the Islamic State group, military officials said Thursday.
The acknowledgement Russia knows approximately where the highly covert US commandos are based is significant because the Pentagon has repeatedly stressed it is not cooperating with Moscow as the two powers lead separate air campaigns in war-ravaged Syria.
The Pentagon last year said it was sending about 50 special ops troops to work with anti-IS fighters in Syria, though officials have said next to nothing about their whereabouts or progress since, and have worked hard to ensure no information about the commandos’ presence is released, citing security reasons.
Lieutenant General Charles Brown, who leads the US air forces in the Middle East, said US officials had asked Moscow to avoid “broad areas” in northern Syria “to maintain a level of safety for our forces that are on the ground.”
He added that Moscow had itself asked the US-led coalition to avoid some of the airfields the Russian military is using.
“They don’t want us flying close to (these,)” Brown said. “Typically, we don’t fly there anyway. So, that hasn’t been an issue.”
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was aware of the unusual request.
He said the Pentagon only provided broad geographic descriptions of where the US troops are, not their precise location.
“There was an effort made to protect the safety of our people from the risk of Russian airstrikes. … Those steps were taken, and those, so far, have been honored,” Cook said.
The United States has since August 2014 led an international coalition against the IS group in Iraq and Syria.
Russia entered the Syria conflict in September, when it began bombing rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. Russia says it is attacking the IS group and other “terrorists.”
Though coalition and Russian planes generally operate in different parts of the country, military officials fret about the possibility of an unintended clash between the two sides.
The Pentagon has held a series of “deconfliction” talks with Russian counterparts to outline procedures in case of a mishap.