The U.S. military is in the process of finalizing a new agreement with the Russian military to minimize potential confrontations as American-backed rebel forces continue their campaign to liberate portions of Syria from the Islamic State, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford said Friday.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also told reporters at the Pentagon that the U.S.-backed fighters currently battling to liberate the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, do not intend to stop there but plan to continue their campaign against the militants into the Euphrates River Valley.
Such a campaign would raise the potential for conflict between the militias and their U.S. trainers with Russian-backed Syrian forces — a risk Dunford said the Pentagon is seeking to avoid.
“We have a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians right now, I won’t share the details, but my sense is that the Russians are enthusiastic as we are to de-conflict operations and ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS and ensure the safety of our personal,” he said. I
In response to a follow up question, Dunford said that the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, along the Euphrates River, will be included in the agreement.
News of negotiations over a new agreement comes days after a U.S. airstrike targeted a Syrian government-backed militia that a Pentagon spokesman said had ventured inside a de-confliction zone and did not respond to warning shots, a show of force from coalition aircraft or Russian efforts to halt their advance.
Beyond ongoing negotiations over a more formal agreement with Russia’s military, Dunford said he is in regular communication with his Russian counterpart, with whom he said he spoke “as recently as last night.” There is also a new line of communication at the three-star level, Dunford said, as well as correspondence between other top military officials.
The operational communications link allowing the two militaries operating in close quarters to communicate and de-conflict also remains strong, Dunford said, including a “pretty robust” line between the U.S. air operations center in Qatar and Russian forces.
“We have for many months now worked very hard to de-conflict our operations and the primary purpose is to ensure the safety of our airmen, our personnel on the ground and allow us to continue to campaign," Dunford said. "I’m confident that we made progress in that regard over the last couple months.
"… The ground is becoming increasingly complex and constrained," he added. "But to date, we have been able to de-conflict operations.”