Just three weeks after the top soldiers of the US and Russian militaries – General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff – met in Azerbaijan, they have followed up with a second meeting in Antalya Turkey, for a summit hosted by Turkey’s top soldier, General Hulusi Akar, who is the Chief of the Turkish General Staff.
Unlike the summit meeting in Azerbaijan, which discussed the full range of US-Russian military relations, the meeting in Turkey is specifically focused on this situations in Iraq and Syria.
The background to this meeting is that President Trump has directed the US military to provide him with plans to intensify the fight in Iraq and Syria against ISIS and the other Jihadi terrorist groups, which President Trump has pledged “to wipe from the surface of the earth”. Apparently a draft plan has already been prepared by the Pentagon, though it has not yet been presented to the President.
At the meeting in Azerbaijan Dunford is reported to have reassured Gerasimov that talk of large scale US army deployments to Syria was untrue. However a sharp increase in the number of US military personnel deployed to Syria is definitely on the cards. With the Russians in a dominant military position in Syria, Dunford clearly wants to brief Gerasimov personally about the plan, so as to ensure at least a measure of Russian (and Syrian) cooperation.
This comes after reports that the US air force carried out air strikes on ISIS that helped the recent Syrian advance on Palmyra.
A further reason why Dunford and Gerasimov might wish to speak to each other – and involve the Turks in their discussions – is that recent offensives by the Syrian and Turkish armies in northern Syria have brought these two armies into close contact with each other. Whilst there has been no outright clash, a number of incidents have taken place.
With both the US and Russia anxious to concentrate on the fight against ISIS, Dunford and Gerasimov will be concerned to ensure that these incidents do not spiral out of control. They will want Hulusi Akar’s explanations of how he will ensure this, and they may have their own proposals to make to him.
With the situation in the eastern Syrian desert Deir Ezzor remaining critical, Gerasimov will also be seeking reassurances from Dunford that the US is doing all it can to prevent ISIS fighters fleeing from Mosul and Iraq joining the fight against the Syrian army in Deir Ezzor.
Lastly, Dunford, Gerasimov and Hulusi Akar will undoubtedly discuss in detail the situation in Manbij, where parallel and clearly coordinated US and Russian troop movements have blocked a Turkish advance on Kurdish controlled Manbij and on ISIS controlled Raqqa.
The chiefs of the US and Russian militaries will want both to reassure Hulusi Akar that this is not a hostile move by the US and Russia against Turkey, and that Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS is highly valued, and at the same time make clear to Hulusi Akar what are the red lines beyond which Turkey is not allowed to go.
The fraught political situation in Washington has made it politically impossible for President Trump to forge ahead at least for the time being with his objective of detente with Russia.
However the US military are not so constrained. With the neocons no longer in charge in Washington and able to prevent them from talking to the Russians, they have seized the opportunity to reach out to their Russian counterparts. The result is that they are now working with them discreetly on the ground in Syria in order to avoid possible conflicts there – such as the one which almost happened in October – and in order that the two militaries can keep each other informed of their respective plans.
It is important to say that this is a dialogue not an alliance. There is no evidence that Dunford and Gerasimov are planning joint operations together against ISIS. Whilst that might one day happen for the moment US Defense Secretary Mattis has ruled it out.
However one reason ISIS has been able to survive for so long and grow to such enormous strength is precisely that the US and the Russian militaries have been in conflict with each other in Syria. This has allowed ISIS to play the two off against each other, and even to forge tactical alliances with the US against the Syrians and the Russians, as happened to deadly effect in September in Deir Ezzor.
Now that the US and Russian militaries are at talking to each and informing each other about their plans, hopefully that will no longer be the case.
In the meantime the mere fact that the US and Russian militaries once more have an active ongoing dialogue, even if its scope for the moment is limited to the fight against ISIS and Jihadi terrorism in Iraq and Syria, may make it easier in the long run to effect a general improvement in US Russian relations.
The US military are not as vulnerable to the charges of treason and collusion with the Russians that s0 many of Donald Trump’s civilian officials are. It would take a very brave or even reckless Democratic Party Senator, CIA official or New York Times journalist to accuse General Dunford of treason because he has met with his Russian counterpart.
That means that for the moment the US military are in a much better position to carry out diplomacy with the Russians than the civilians are, a fact which given how important the military are in Donald Trump’s administration may turn out to be important in the long run.
That however is for the future. In the meantime the mere fact that Dunford and Gerasimov are now regularly talking to each other is in itself a good thing.