WASHINGTON (CN) – Shedding light on a threat Russia made Thursday against U.S.-backed fighters in Syria, a Pentagon spokesman disclosed that there was an unusual meeting recently, somewhere in the Middle East, about avoiding clashes while fighting the Islamic State group.
Tensions have been on the rise since Sept. 16 when the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS accused Russian forces of bombing and wounding several members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters whom the United States supports in the battle against the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
Russia denied the allegations, however, contending that it was the SDF who fired on the Syrian government troops it backs in the fight against ISIS.
Army Col. Ryan Dillon told Pentagon reporters Thursday that the Russian accusations show the importance of hammering out deconfliction measures, using a buzzword defined as reducing the risk of collisions in combat or other situations.
On the heels of the Saturday incident, Dillon said, Russian military forces met face to face with their American counterparts this week somewhere in the Middle East about this very issue.
Dillon declined to say where the meeting took place, who was present or when it occurred, noting only that the parties shared maps and graphics to discuss where additional measures are necessary to ensure that neither side inadvertently fires on the other.
The SDF, Russian special forces and Russian-backed Syrian government forces are all now conducting operations against ISIS around the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zour, one of the remaining Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
Dillon said the close proximity of all the parties means that deconfliction efforts need “to be upped a level,” while the level of detail involved in those efforts needs to increase.
When asked if the face-to-face meeting indicated cooperation, Dillon declined to call it that.
“It is professional,” he said. “It is for deconfliction. And it is so that we know where they are, and they know where we are, and we can continue our efforts to defeat ISIS.”
Coinciding with the spokesman’s revelations, Russia issued a warning Thursday that it would target U.S.-backed fighters in Syria if they came under fire again.
Dillon said the face-to-face meeting is a natural progression to prior efforts to avoid confrontations.
The Obama administration had set up hot lines that U.S. and Russian military commanders could use to avoid clashes, but denied that the network amounted to coordination.
Federal law prohibits the U.S. military from cooperating with Moscow after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014.
Dillon said there is no communication on the ground between U.S.-backed forces and Russian-backed forces, but deconfliction efforts continue with the hotlines.