The top U.S. military officer said Monday that Washington and Moscow are in delicate discussions to tamp down tensions arising from the U.S. shootdown of a Syrian fighter jet, which the Russians called a violation of a U.S.-Russian understanding on avoiding air incidents.
In an appearance at the National Press Club, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that broader U.S. and Russian interests will enable the two sides to avoid direct hostilities in Syria.
“The worst thing any of us could do right now is address this with hyperbole,” Dunford said.
Russia’s defense ministry said Monday that military aircraft flown by the U.S.-led coalition over Syrian government-controlled areas west of the Euphrates River will be tracked as potential targets. It also said the U.S. shootdown of a Syrian SU-22 fighter was a violation of a 2015 memorandum of understanding on prevention of aerial incidents in Syria and that Moscow had therefore suspended their cooperation with Washington under the memorandum.
Russia has fighter aircraft, air defense weapons and other military assets in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad’s government. Moscow has said it entered the fight mainly to combat IS.
“I’m confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation’s operations center,” Dunford said. “I’m also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.”
The U.S. and its coalition partners fly combat and support missions daily out of several bases in the Middle East, including in Qatar and Turkey. They are in support of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters aligned against Islamic State militants.
On Sunday, the U.S. said a U.S. Navy F-18 Super Hornet shot down the Syrian fighter after the fighter bombed members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who are attempting to recapture Raqqa, the self-declared IS capital.
Dunford said the U.S.-Russia military hotline established under the 2015 memorandum has been useful. He said the two sides had been in touch as recently as Monday morning, but he also suggested that communication was a problem.
“We will work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to re-establish de-confliction,” he said.
Dunford said he is focused on ensuring the U.S. can achieve its main purpose in Syria — the defeat of Islamic State militants.
“The Russian Federation has indicated that their purpose in Syria, like ours, is to defeat ISIS, and we’ll see if that’s true here in the coming hours,” he said.
The developments give new urgency to a meeting set for later this week between senior U.S. and Russian diplomats that was meant to focus on irritants in the relationship that are hampering cooperation in other areas, notably Syria and Ukraine.