US won't cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, says Defence Secretary

Russian pilots of SU-34 bomber checking their plane before the flight at the Syrian Hmeymim airbase, outside Latakia, Syria.
Russian pilots of SU-34 bomber checking their plane before the flight at the Syrian Hmeymim airbase, outside Latakia, Syria.PHOTO: EPA/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE

BEIRUT (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The United States will not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria because of its “tragically flawed” strategy, but it is prepared to carry out basic, technical discussions on pilot safety, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday, rebutting claims from Russia that it had received a proposal to coordinate air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants in the war-torn country. 

“We are not prepared to cooperate in a strategy which as we explained is flawed, tragically flawed on Russia’s part,” Mr Carter said during a trip to Rome, renewing US accusations that Russia’s strikes were not focused on ISIS militants.

Earlier in the day, a Russian defence ministry spokesman said Russia may accept US proposals on coordinating strikes against ISIS militants in Syria, official said, amid a bombing campaign that has escalated tensions between Moscow and Nato nations.

Russian and US experts were expected to discuss technical details on Wednesday (Oct 7), RIA Novosti reported, citing the Defence Ministry's spokesman, Igor Konashenkov. US and Turkish officials, and Syrian opposition groups, have said Russia's air strikes have mainly targeted moderate rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

"The Defence Ministry responded to the Pentagon's request and promptly considered the Americans' proposals for coordinating actions in the fight against the ISIL terrorist group in Syria," Mr Konashenkov said, using another acronym for ISIS. "In general, these proposals may be adopted for implementation," he said.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has called on Russia to avoid coming into conflict with the US-led coalition already bombing ISIS targets in Syria.

Russia's move could be meant to appease the US, Nato and others who have criticised its Syria deployment, "but it won't change the rules of the game," said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

'AT ODDS'

"The Russians and the Americans have different objectives in Syria," he said. "The Russians want to prop up a crumbling regime and, to do that, will have to bomb moderate Syrian groups, which is at odds with the American objective."

Russia began its air campaign last week, its first foray outside the former Soviet Union in more than three decades, catching the US and its allies by surprise. The Kremlin said its campaign was designed to support Mr Assad, who is also backed by Shi'ite-dominated Iran in the fight against predominantly Sunni groups.

The US sees a constructive role for the Russians in Syria "if they actually hit ISIS targets", something that to a large extent "we've not seen" so far, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington on Tuesday.

"We feel like they've only ratcheted up the tension and the conflict so far with their air strikes against moderate opposition forces," Mr Toner added.

TURKISH CRITICISM

Interim Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Wednesday (Oct 7) renewed his country's criticism of Russia's actions, saying that of 57 Russian air strikes against targets in Syria, 55 have struck moderate Syrian opposition forces while two were directed at ISIS. Weakening Syria's opposition would also work to strengthen ISIS, Mr Davutoglu said in televised remarks in Istanbul.

Nato member Turkey has vowed to protect its borders after a Russian fighter jet that had entered its airspace was confronted by two Turkish aircraft on Oct 3.

The Turkish Defence Ministry has offered to create a joint working group with Russia to coordinate military activity and prevent Russian incursions into Turkish airspace, Interfax reported on Tuesday (Oct 6). Russia's military attache in Istanbul was invited to Turkey's Defence Ministry to discuss the plan, the agency said.