U.S. keeps link open to ease ten­sion with Rus­sia

Moscow rat­tles sabers af­ter down­ing of plane

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

Amid a sharp es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions among the var­i­ous par­ties drawn into Syria’s civil war, the Pen­tagon’s top mil­i­tary of­fi­cer tried to defuse a clash with Rus­sia a day af­ter the U.S. mil­i­tary shot down a Syr­ian fighter at­tack­ing coali­tion forces en­gaged in the fight to de­feat the Is­lamic State group.

Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. and Rus­sian mil­i­tary had been in con­tact af­ter Moscow an­grily an­nounced that it was shut­ting down a hot­line de­signed to avoid un­in­ten­tional clashes be­tween Amer­i­can and Rus­sian fight­ers op­er­at­ing in the skies above Syria and would even tar­get U.S. and al­lied planes if they strayed from their zone.

“That link is still on­go­ing here this morn­ing,” Gen. Dun­ford said at a Na­tional Press Club talk in Wash­ing­ton.

He said the ad­min­is­tra­tion will “work diplo­mat­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily in the com­ing hours to reestab­lish de­con­flic­tion” with Rus­sian forces in Syria.

The down­ing of a Syr­ian-flagged SU-22 fighter on Sun­day, cou­pled with re­cent hos­til­i­ties by pro-regime Ira­nian paramil­i­taries against U.S. bases along the Syr­ian-Iraqi bor­der, has sharp­ened the Syr­ian con­flict to a level not seen since the be­gin­ning of the war against the Is­lamic State three years ago.

An­a­lysts say the ex­changes also are a sign of the ma­neu­ver­ing by the ma­jor play­ers in the Syr­ian cri­sis to lay down mark­ers and stake claims ahead of what most ex­pect to be the im­mi­nent col­lapse

of the Is­lamic State’s “caliphate,” cen­tered in the city of Raqqa.

Rus­sia’s rhetoric was un­usu­ally harsh in the wake of the down­ing of a plane of its ally, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Ryabkov on Mon­day called it “an­other act of de­fi­ance of in­ter­na­tional law by the United States.”

Rus­sian war­planes and mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers have been back­ing Mr. As­sad against West­ern-backed rebel groups in the coun­try’s bru­tal 6-year-old civil war.

“Re­gard­less of who is in power in Wash­ing­ton … they are in the habit of think­ing that there are cer­tain cir­cum­stances that en­able them to take high-handed, con­temp­tu­ous at­ti­tudes and in some cases to openly ig­nore the ABCs of in­ter­na­tional con­duct,” Mr. Ryabkov said.

A state­ment from the Pen­tagon said the down­ing of the Syr­ian jet was “in ac­cor­dance with rules of en­gage­ment and in col­lec­tive self-de­fense of coali­tion-part­nered forces.”

When asked if U.S. air­craft were in dan­ger of be­ing shot down by Rus­sian or Syr­ian war­planes, Gen. Dun­ford replied: “I’m con­fi­dent that we are still com­mu­ni­cat­ing be­tween our oper­a­tions cen­ter and the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion oper­a­tions cen­ter. And I’m also con­fi­dent that our forces have the ca­pa­bil­ity to take care of them­selves.”

Break­ing point

Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion Mon­day marked the sec­ond time it has sus­pended com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­signed to avoid un­in­tended clashes with the U.S. and its al­lies in Syria’s frac­tured bat­tle­field. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions were tem­po­rar­ily cut in April when Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered a se­ries of Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­sile strikes in re­sponse to Damascus’ sus­pected use of chem­i­cal weapons against anti-gov­ern­ment forces.

The line was re-es­tab­lished weeks later, but mil­i­tary re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Moscow in Syria eroded sig­nif­i­cantly in the wake of the cruise mis­sile strikes. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion main­tained that the April strikes were not a sign of Wash­ing­ton’s de­sire to take a side in the Syr­ian civil war.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer sounded a sim­i­lar tone on Mon­day. He said the Is­lamic State, not the As­sad regime and its Rus­sian al­lies, “rep­re­sents a threat to all na­tions.”

De­spite Moscow’s saber-rat­tling, the U.S. in­tends to keep “the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion open with the Rus­sians to de­con­flict po­ten­tial is­sues,” Mr. Spicer said dur­ing a press brief­ing.

But he added that the U.S. will do what­ever is nec­es­sary to pro­tect Amer­ica’s mil­i­tary and its in­ter­ests in Syria. “Ob­vi­ously, we’re go­ing to do what we can to pro­tect our in­ter­ests,” he said. “We will al­ways pre­serve the right of self-de­fense.”

Amer­i­can com­man­ders said they were act­ing in self-de­fense when they took out the Syr­ian fighter near the town of Ja’Din, lo­cated south of Tabqa dam, the coali­tion’s main lo­gis­tics and air sup­port hub for the as­sault on Raqqa.

Pro-As­sad forces launched an at­tack on Ja’Din on Sun­day af­ter­noon and re­took the town from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, the net­work of Arab and Kur­dish mili­tias al­lied with the U.S. coali­tion in the Raqqa fight.

It was un­clear whether the regime forces that led the as­sault on Ja’Din were gov­ern­ment troops or Ira­nian paramil­i­taries sent in by Tehran to sup­port the regime.

Af­ter the as­sault on Ja’Din, the Syr­ian SU-22 fighter launched airstrikes on SDF fight­ers tak­ing back their po­si­tions in­side the city. Coali­tion com­man­ders or­dered a Navy F/A-18 Su­per Hor­net to in­ter­cept and de­stroy the en­emy air­craft.

“We made every ef­fort to warn [pro-regime forces] not to come any closer. And then the com­man­der made a judg­ment that there was a threat to the forces that we were sup­port­ing, and took ac­tion,” Gen. Dun­ford said Mon­day.

He said it was the sec­ond time U.S. war­planes have taken out regime tar­gets threat­en­ing coali­tion forces.

Amer­i­can fight­ers took out a col­umn of Ira­nian para­mil­i­tary forces al­lied with the As­sad regime this month af­ter they at­tempted to cross into a se­cure perime­ter around a U.S. train­ing camp in the south­ern Syr­ian city of At Tanf. Rus­sian and Syr­ian lead­ers have agreed not to en­ter the area sur­round­ing the camp.

Shortly af­ter the U.S. airstrikes, a for­eign drone re­port­edly bombed a joint U.S. and Syr­ian pa­trol out­side the At Tanf camp. Coali­tion of­fi­cials con­firmed there were no ca­su­al­ties from the at­tack but de­clined to com­ment on whether Iran had launched the drone.

Be­yond Raqqa

The U.S. spe­cial oper­a­tions camp at At Tanf was one of the coali­tion’s main train­ing hubs for mod­er­ate Syr­ian mili­tias — in­clud­ing el­e­ments of the Free Syr­ian Army — spear­head­ing coali­tion oper­a­tions against Is­lamic State fight­ers in Deir el-Zour and the East­ern Euphrates River Val­ley.

Top Is­lamic State lead­ers, in­clud­ing “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, re­port­edly be­gan flee­ing Raqqa for Deir el-Zour and Madan en masse in May, ahead of the coali­tion’s op­er­a­tion to lib­er­ate the city start­ing this month.

Deir el-Zour and the sur­round­ing river val­ley is ex­pected to be the bat­tle­ground against the Is­lamic State once Raqqa falls.

Em­bold­ened by the regime’s vic­tory over antigov­ern­ment forces in the rebel strong­hold of Aleppo late last year, mil­i­tary com­man­ders in Damascus, Tehran and Moscow are in­creas­ingly set­ting their sights on Deir el-Zour. Since March, the As­sad regime has car­ried out of­fen­sives against in Deir Hafer, an Is­lamic State en­clave 30 miles east of Aleppo, and al Bab. Gov­ern­ment troops seized al Bab in Fe­bru­ary and took con­trol of the main road­ways lead­ing from the city into Raqqa.

That pres­ence, seen as an at­tempt by Mr. As­sad to main­tain sway over the coun­try and gain lever­age dur­ing on­go­ing peace talks, has posed prob­lems for Amer­i­can and coali­tion com­man­ders try­ing to main­tain or­der among the var­i­ous forces bat­tling the Is­lamic State in north­ern Syria.

Look­ing to lever­age that mo­men­tum by regime forces, Ira­nian mili­tias have taken a more ag­gres­sive pos­ture. Aside from amass­ing Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men around the U.S. base at Al Tanf, Tehran launched a se­ries of bal­lis­tic mis­sile strikes against Is­lamic State tar­gets in and around Deir el-Zour.

The bal­lis­tic mis­sile strikes, the first ever taken by Iran against the Is­lamic State, were in re­tal­i­a­tion for a se­ries of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Tehran claimed by the ji­hadi group. The Tehran strikes in June, which left 18 dead and 40 wounded, were the first ac­tions the Is­lamic State took in­side the Ira­nian cap­i­tal.

The mis­sile strikes hit the “head­quar­ters and gath­er­ing cen­ters of Tak­firi ter­ror­ists sup­port­ing and build­ing car bombs,” said a state­ment by the hard-line Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps broad­cast Sun­day by Tas­nim news.

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