No, U.S. and Russian warplanes are not flying combat missions together over Syria. Yet.
That startling claim, which spread across the U.S. news media on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 2017, began with a vague and misleading tweet by the Associated Press that was apparently based in part on a misreading of reports by Russian state media.
“BREAKING: Russian Defense Ministry says its warplanes have flown first combat mission in Syria with U.S.-led coalition aircraft,” the A.P. tweeted at 12:18 P.M. EST.
The Pentagon flatly denied the claim. “The Department of Defense is not coordinating airstrikes with the Russian military in Syria,” department spokesman Eric Pahon told The Daily Beast. “DoD maintains a channel of communication with the Russian military focused solely on ensuring the safety of aircrews and de-confliction of coalition and Russian operations in Syria.”
The A.P.’s report is inaccurate, but the wire service’s confusion is perhaps understandable—and, for Moscow, might even be the whole point. It’s not hard to see how Russia benefits from news reports claiming that the United States and Russia are fighting side-by-side in Syria.
After all, U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be pushing the Pentagon in that direction.
Russia reportedly did conduct a powerful air strike on targets in Syria on Jan. 23. “Six Tu-22M3 long-range bombers took off from an airfield located in the territory of the Russian Federation, flew over territories of Iraq and Iran, and carried out an aviation strike on control centers, ammunition, and weaponry storages of ISIS terrorists in the Deir ez-Zor province,” the Russian defense ministry stated.
Nowhere in its statement did the Russian government even imply that warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition accompanied the Russian bombers. But Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quickly muddied the waters with a later report today that at least implied some degree of cooperation between the United States and Russia.
The Russian defense ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
“On Jan. 22, the United States banned the coordinates of targets… near the village of Al-Bab” in northern Syria near the border with Turkey, RIA Novosti reported. But Russian planes struck what it claimed were militant fighters in the area “after further exploration.”
The RIA Novosti story quotes a Russian military official referring to the “channel of communication” that Pahon mentioned—a hotline that U.S. and Russian forces use to “deconflict” their respective missions over Syria in order to avoid aerial collisions.
American commanders can urge their Russian counterparts to avoid certain areas while U.S. planes are overhead. Russian commanders can make the same request of the Americans. But in “banning” certain coordinates, the Americans aren’t actively contributing to a Russian air strike—to say nothing of sending U.S. or coalition jets to join the Russian attack.
Of course, that depends on your definition of “coalition.” Turkey has allowed the U.S.-led coalition to use its Incirlik air base, but Turkish air strikes in northern Syria do not fall under the coalition’s command structure. They are Turkish missions with Turkish objectives.
Turkish warplanes have bombed rebels and militants in Syria alongside Russian planes several times since Moscow and Ankara boosted their cooperation in mid-January. The First joint air raid on targets in Al Bab on Jan. 18 reportedly involved nine Russian planes and eight Turkish ones. On Jan. 21, three Russian fighters and four Turkish ones reportedly struck Al Bab.
The air strike the following day—the one where U.S. officials “banned” certain coordinates—was carried out by two Russian jets and two jets from the “international coalition,” according to RIA Novosti. In context, it’s clear that the jets in question are Turkish.
The Turkish defense ministry declined to immediately comment. “Now closed,” said an official who answered the phone. “Call tomorrow.”
Of course, it’s possible that the Kremlin deliberately massaged the stories about the recent air strikes to create the impression of direct U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Trump has made no secret of his desire to rekindle a relationship between the United States and Russia, particularly in counterterrorism efforts.
In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, Trump designated “radical Islamic terrorism” as his foremost foreign policy concern, while repudiating the imposition of American values on other countries—a telegraphing of a neo-isolationist posture that complements perfectly Moscow’s wish that America cease to concern itself with Russia’s erosion of democracy and civil society and its dire record of human rights abuses, at home and abroad.
Putting out a deceptive half-truth about a new era of American-Russian collaboration in Syria would be one way to test the new commander-in-chief. The Trump administration either has to accuse the Russian government of peddling disinformation—what his own team might call “alternative facts”—or perhaps turn a Moscow-baked lie into a fait accompli.
Russia could force Trump’s hand by saying that Trump’s already doing what he himself has said he plans to do—tether U.S. military operations in Syria to Russia’s own intervention in the country.