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James Mattis: No plans for U.S., Russian military cooperation in Syria

July 24, 2018

The Defense Department has no plans to initiate joint operations between U.S. and Russian forces deployed in Syria, but could move out on those options if ordered by the Trump White House, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said Tuesday.

In a rare televised press conference, the Pentagon chief said the department has received no directives on adjusting the U.S. mission in Syria or other military matters involving Moscow, as a result of last Monday’s controversial summit between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We will not be doing anything additional” in Syria, with regards to Russia’s military presence in the country, Mr. Mattis said in a joint press conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne.

U.S. and coalition commanders overseeing anti-Islamic State operations in Syria remain committed to military deconfliction with Russian forces in the country, deployed to support government troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Mr. Mattis said during the briefing at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

While no plans are in place to begin cooperating with Russian forces backing Damascus, Mr. Mattis did note that the Pentagon was standing by for possible orders from the White House to adjust scale or scope of the U.S. mission in Syria.

Those changes will not happen “until the secretary of state and the president have further figured out, at what point, we are going to start working alongside our allies with Russia in the future,” Mr. Mattis said.

“It has not happened yet and it would be premature for me to go into further detail at this point,” he added.

Defense officials in Moscow made clear, in no uncertain terms, that American military cooperation in Syria is the Trump administration’s only option if the U.S. wants to continue its operations in the country.

“The US forces have only one option to stay in Syria to engage in cooperation with Russia and the country’s legal leadership in the process of assisting the return of refugees and temporarily displaced persons to their homes,” said a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday.

Should Washington “not see opportunities for such an interaction, the best way out will not be to interfere with the peace process and proceed with the accelerated withdrawal of US servicemen from the territory of Syria,” defense officials in Moscow added, according to the statement.

Russian forces, along with Iranian military advisers and paramilitary groups like Hezbollah, have been vital in aiding Mr. Assad in quashing anti-government rebels in Damascus’ brutal military campaign including the use of chemical weapons beginning in 2011.

Since then, Russian forces backing the Assad regime and U.S. forces battling the Islamic State in Syria since 2014 have maintained an uneasy detente with both sides attempting to keep out of each other’s paths in the country.

But Moscow claimed last week it planned to press the United States for some level of cooperation with their forces in Syria, based on agreements reportedly reached between the Trump administration and Mr. Putin during the Helsinki summit.

Officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense did not provide details as to what level of military cooperation Moscow is seeking from the U.S., or what kinds of missions American units could be tasked with as part of joint operations with Russia. But Moscow suggested the groundwork for a proposed way ahead for U.S and Russian military cooperation had been hammered out during private negotiations between the two leaders in Finland.

“The Russian Defense Ministry is ready for practical implementation of the agreements in the sphere of international security reached by Russian and U.S. presidents, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump,” ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement last Tuesday.

The Pentagon has repeatedly denied it has received any guidance from the White House to move out on agreements, regarding U.S. and Russian forces, reached during the summit.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin reportedly held a two-hour private discussion in Helsinki, with only translators present, before opening the summit to their respective staffs for further talks. It remains unclear what was discussed or what issues were raised during that closed-door meeting.

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