ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT --- It is a measure of the success indigenous and coalition forces have experienced against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that a meeting of the chiefs of defense from the United States, Turkey and Russia was needed, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.
The Turkish chief of the general staff, Army Gen. Hulusi Akar, invited Marine Corps Gen., Joe Dunford and Russian chief of the general staff, Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov to a meeting in Antalya, Turkey, March 6-7 to discuss conditions in Syria and the measures needed to protect each-others’ forces in the region.
The three chiefs of defense and their staffs met at the Regnum Resort to describe conditions on the ground in Syria as each nation sees them, and to devise methods of deconflicting operations. Dunford spoke about the process during an interview on his way back home.
Syria is in the midst of a civil war and the battle against ISIS is only one part of it. “The major discussion was to set a common understanding of the situation in Syria as it is unfolding -- it is very dynamic,” he said.
Dynamic is one way of describing it -- jumbled may be another. In the area around Manbij and Bab, coalition-backed forces, Russian-backed regime forces and Turkish-backed forces are operating in relatively close proximity. Some indigenous forces are Kurdish, some Arab, and some a mix of all the religions and ethnicities of the region. In addition to working as part of the coalition, Turkey is running unilateral operations in the region. Some of the local forces operate against ISIS, some against the regime and others against other factions.
The United States has personnel in the region as do some coalition countries. The Russians have personnel in the region. The battlespace is a jumble of forces with different motivations, objectives, resources and ends.
Dunford said he and the other defense chiefs discussed ways to deconflict ground and air operations to ensure people are as safe as can be. It also opens the aperture to allow indigenous forces aided by the coalition to prosecute the campaign against Raqqa, he said.
“We talked … to set the conditions where now the three-stars-channel dialogue will take place to actually get to the details of deconfliction,” the chairman said.
Communications Enhance Safety
In the past few months there was a single communications channel between the Combined Air Operations Center and Russian air operation center in Syria. “It has been an unclassified fairly tenuous link to deconflict aviation, air ops and to make sure that air ops as they pertain to operations on the ground do it safely,” he said.
“I believe enhanced deconfliction -- to include more robust communications between our people -- is important to continue to operate safely,” Dunford said. “We’ve successfully mitigated the risk of incidents over the past several months.”
These lines of communication between U.S. and Russian leaders are important to help reduce the risk of potential clashes or accidents. U.S. forces routinely operate in areas near Russian forces, such as in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Pacific, Europe, the North Sea and Syria.
“First and foremost, I was to mitigate the risk of miscalculation,” the chairman said. “In the event of a crisis I want to have an open line of communication so we can talk in real time about what is actually happening and try to address it properly. I think we all know through history that miscalculation and miscommunication can take us in the wrong direction.”
Doubters of the need for such deconfliction need only to remember the incident in 2015, when Turkey brought down a Russian aircraft that flew into its airspace.
By law, the U.S. military cannot operate or cooperate with the Russians. “We don’t have policy alignment with the Russians,” Dunford said. “We don’t have common political objectives.”
The chairman said he took advantage of the meeting to discuss the region with his Turkish counterpart separately. In addition to being a key coalition ally, Turkey is also a NATO ally.
Turkey has had a difficult year -- an attempted coup in July, numerous deadly terrorist attacks inside the nation, and the nation is facing a potentially divisive referendum. “Turkey is also a significant partner in hosting and fostering U.S. forces inside of Turkey for the campaign,” he said. “From my Turkish counterpart, I get a very good read-out perspective from someone who lives in the neighborhood.”
Dunford wants to ensure “no space grows between either our understanding of the fight or any lack of transparency for what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”