A report from the Russian Defence Ministry yesterday 23rd January 2017 caused a minor flap when it said that Russian aircraft had bombed ISIS position near Al-Bab on the basis of coordinates provided by the US military.
This caused some excitement, with some seeing this report as the first sign that under the new Trump administration US policy in Syria is at last changing, and that the US and Russia are finally working together to fight ISIS.
The Defence Ministry statement reads as follows
On January 22, the Russian command centre at the Khmeimim airbase has received coordinates of Daesh targets in Al-Bab, Aleppo province, via the ‘direct line’ from the US-led coalition headquarters. After further data verification with the assistance of unmanned aircraft and space reconnaissance, the Russian Aerospace Forces and two jets of the international coalition have conducted airstrikes on the terrorists’ targets.
(bold italics added)
However following questions from the Russian news agencies Interfax and Sputnik, the US led international coalition categorically denied cooperating with the Russian military in carrying out the air strikes. Its statement reads as follows
The Department of Defence is not coordinating air strikes with the Russian military in Syria. DoD maintains a channel of communication focused solely on ensuring the safety of air crews and de-confliction of Coalition and Russian operations in Syria.
It is in fact easy to see the cause of the confusion.
The air strike was another joint operation of the Russian and Turkish air forces. Turkey is a nominal member of the US led anti-ISIS coalition. Presumably it was its air force which was provided by the US with the details of the ISIS targets near Al-Bab. The Turks in turn passed on this information to the Russians when the joint air strike was planned. The Russian Defence Ministry statement refers to “two jets of the international coalition”. The jets in question were Turkish.
The big question is whether the Russian Defence Ministry was an intentional ‘stretching of the truth’ or whether it was simply a mistake.
On balance I have to say that I think it is most likely it was a mistake, with whoever drafted the Russian Defence Ministry statement getting their facts confused, and assuming that the coordinates of the ISIS targets were provided to the Russian military directly by the US “via the ‘direct line from the US-led coalition headquarters” rather than – as almost certainly happened – in a roundabout way via the Turks.
It is easy to see how such a mistake could have been made, and that is what I think almost certainly happened.
The alternative, that someone in Moscow deliberately ‘stretched the truth’, seems to me less plausible because I just can’t see the motive.
If the Russian Defence Ministry statement was intended to give the impression that the US and Russia are already fighting ISIS together, then whoever was behind the decision to put out the statement ought to have known that it would be immediately refuted by the US.
If the statement was intended as a hint that the US and Russia should fight ISIS together, then I see no need for it because the Russians are perfectly capable of saying it to the officials of the new administration – including President Trump – when they speak to them.
Until then any statement or comment coming from the officials of either government suggesting that this cooperation is already taking place should be treated with caution.