The Russian daily Kommersant has provided more information about the Dunford-Gerasimov meeting held between the two countries’ top military leaders in Baku, Azerbaijan on Thursday.
It seems that the meeting – the first between the US and Russian militaries held at this level since January 2014 (ie. since before the Ukrainian crisis became international) – took place in a cordial atmosphere. Kommersant says that Gerasimov was unfazed by the rhetoric coming from US Defense Secretary Mattis. Clearly Gerasimov read it – correctly – as public posturing of no significance.
However one topic the Russians did bring up, which it turns out has caused them serious worry, is the question of reported US plans to send ground troops to Syria.
Press reports have been circulating over the last few days that the US is considering sending ground troops to Syria. It seems Gerasimov warned Dunford that this would be profoundly destabilising, and that he also warned Dunford against doing it.
Kommersant says that in response Dunford reassured Gerasimov that there are in fact no plans to deploy US ground troops to Syria.
The rumours of a US plan to deploy US ground troops to Syria originates in a single quote given to CNN by an anonymous US Department of Defense official. Even the CNN report is however hedged with doubts about whether such a thing is being seriously considered.
A reasonable guess is that in response to the directive from President Trump to Mattis and Dunford to come up with plans to fight ISIS someone in the Department of Defense has engaged in some “blue-sky” thinking. Some gossipy person then passed it on to CNN.
The political resistance in the US – not just from Congress and the military but from precisely the people who in the election voted for Trump – to the US deploying ground troops in Syria against Russian and Syrian objections would be immense. I doubt anyone in the Pentagon is taking that option seriously.
The exchange over the question of US ground troops being sent to Syria however highlights the benefits of the channel of communication between the US and Russian militaries that General Dunford says he wants to establish.
The Russian military were worried about something they feared the US military might do. The US military were able to reassure them they had no plans to do it. A further potential cause of misunderstanding and conflict between the world’s two military superpowers was defused at source.