Pentagon official reveals first use of advance warning system during Russian long-range strikes in Syria to ensure no US planes put at risk.
Russian and US forces have for the first time exchanged military information during airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria amid early signs of thawing relations between the two countries following the Paris terror attacks and the downing of a Russian airliner.
The contacts came after Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, confirmed that abomb had brought down the Russian passenger plane over Egypt last month, as had been previously been claimed by Isis.
Early on Tuesday, France and Russia launched a series of punishing attacks in Syria that included the first use by Moscow of long-range bombers in its campaign.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said he had told his navy to coordinate with French naval forces in the Mediterranean. “Our air force’s military work in Syriamust not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”
Pentagon officials revealed that the advance warning provided by Russia of its long-range bombing strike on the Isis stronghold of Raqqa allowed US air force commanders based in Qatar to track the cruise missiles used in the attack and ensure no American planes were put at risk.
“We are not coordinating or cooperating with the Russians in terms of targets but we are taking these important steps to make sure our pilots, and the Russian crews for that matter, do not come into conflict with one another,” said defence department spokesman Peter Cook, who said it was the first time the early warning system agreed in October has been put to use.
US officials also welcomed the apparent shift in Russian targeting toward Isis fighters in the east of Syria, rather than US-backed moderates, but warned that using long-range bombers may pose a higher risk of collateral damage.
“The US military goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and we have been very clear about asking Russian forces to do the same,” said state department spokesman Mark Toner.
The increased co-operation in Syria appeared to lend credence to the idea that the Paris attacks could be a turning point. Momentum appears to be mounting behind the idea of an international coalition to drive Isis out of both Syria and Iraq.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, offered an upbeat assessment of prospects for diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria and fight Isis, saying a ceasefire between Bashar al-Assad and the rebels fighting to overthrow him could now be just “weeks away”.
He praised the cooperation with Russia, saying it could not be higher.
“We agreed to exchange more information, and I’m convinced that over the course of the next weeks, Daesh [the Arabic name for Isis] will feel greater pressure. They are feeling it today. They felt it yesterday. They felt it in the past weeks. We gained more territory. Daesh has less territory,” Kerry said.
But some analysts expressed scepticism, saying the main focus of the Russian attacks may have been against moderate forces in Aleppo in support of Assad rather than Isis targets in Raqqa.
Moscow also announced it is to bring in reinforcements: 25 long-range Tupolev bombers. This could be a sign that Russia is running short of cruise missiles – or simply taking advantage of the opportunity to give the bombers valuable combat experience – but it adds to the sense that more and more military resources are being deployed in the region.
The French president, François Hollande, is scheduled to meet Putin and Barack Obama next week to discuss the formation of a grand coalition against Isis.
But there is little evidence yet to suggest Russia is prepared to abandon Assad, and Kerry, for all his optimism about cooperation, acknowledged that Assad remained a stumbling block.
Kerry told reporters in Paris that Saturday’s agreement in Vienna for a ceasefire and talks between the Syrian government and opposition would boost the international campaign against Isis, galvanised by the atrocities in the French capital.
“We’re weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition for Syria,” Kerry said.
The US is seeking to build on the momentum of the Vienna agreement, in which 19 countries – including bitter rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia – signed a UN statement supporting a 1 January deadline for the start of talks between Assad and the rebels, with the aim of agreeing a ceasefire by 14 May 2016 and holding free elections a year later.
No Syrians were invited to take part in the event so that the international parties could present a unified message.
Crucially, however, there was no sign of agreement on the polarising question of Assad’s future. The US, Britain and other western countries have signalled that the president could stay on for a transitional period but then must go. Russia has insisted that must be for the Syrian people to decide. Iran’s view is that Assad must be able to participate in future elections.
Jordan has been mandated to draw up a list of anti-Assad groups which could take part in negotiations. That will exclude Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, which are banned by the UN. Both could be attacked even when a broader ceasefire is in place, the statement said.
Saudi Arabia is expected to host a meeting of Syrian opposition figures by mid-December, at which they are to agree on a delegation to send to talks with representatives from Assad’s government. Once talks begin, a ceasefire is to take effect.
But even the mainstream, western-backed opposition, the Syrian National Coalition, will be unwilling to take part without guarantees that Assad will go. “The Syrian people will not accept giving Bashar al-Assad any role in the transitional process after all the massacres he committed,” Hisham Marwa, the SNC vice-president, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Opposition sources say they also fear that the Jordanian vetting process will exclude the majority of armed rebel groups and important non-jihadi Islamist ones such as Ahrar al-Sham, and thus play into Assad’s hands.
In the wake of Friday’s attacks, the US, Britain and France have all said they want to accelerate a twin-track approach to Syria, intensifying diplomacy and escalating military action against Isis. Last week’s capture of the Iraqi town of Sinjar by US-backed Kurdish forces is being held up as a model for future operations.