POLITICS
01/23/2017 01:26 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2017

U.S. Denies Coordination With Russia In Syria

The new White House press secretary deferred to the Pentagon but left the door open for future collaboration.

WASHINGTON ― U.S. officials are denying Russian claims of U.S. and Russian cooperation against the Islamic State group.

A state-owned Russian outlet made the claim early Monday, suggesting that the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS had shared intelligence about the militant group’s positions with the Russian defense ministry. Hours later, the Associated Press reported the ministry saying Russian planes were flying alongside those of the coalition.

“It’s rubbish ... propaganda,” coalition spokesperson John Dorrian said in an email. “They’re not flying missions with coalition aircraft.”

He soon issued another statement denying Moscow’s allegations, saying the only contact between the two powers is to prevent escalation or accidents.

“I’m not aware of any such thing nor what these claims would be based on,” a State Department official told the Huffington Post.

Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, deferred to the Pentagon on today’s reports. But he said future collaboration with Russia was possible.

“The president has been very clear that he’s going to work with any country that shares our interest in defeating ISIS,” Spicer said. “I think that if there’s a way that we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure, we’ll take it.”

Washington has avoided partnering with Russia because of the heavy civilian casualties it has caused and because of Moscow’s alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad, a toxic figure who has helped ISIS thrive.

Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012, warned against a U.S.-Russia alignment in a Monday op-ed in the New York Times. “Russian counterterrorism ... has been principally about indiscriminate violence ― targeting a few terrorists and recklessly slaughtering civilians in the hope that no one will dare continue to plot attacks,” Benjamin wrote. “Embracing Russia and its brutal tactics has the potential to stoke anti-American sentiment and encourage radicalization among Muslims around the world. The thought that we would run that risk, particularly when the United States’ Muslim community is one of the best-integrated, least radicalized in a predominantly non-Muslim country, is simply foolish.”

Analysts say Russia and the Syrian regime have focused little of their military attention on ISIS, losing territory to the extremist group as they focus on weakening the more moderate opposition to Assad. Asked about potential cooperation with Assad during a Trump presidency, Spicer appeared to dismiss the idea. “We’re not going to get together with people under the guise of defeating ISIS if that’s not truly their guise,” the White House spokesman said. “So let’s not take that too far.”

But President Donald Trump has been less harsh on the Syrian ruler than his predecessor and has frequently spoken of his desire to collaborate with Russia.

And his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, downplayed Assad’s abuses during a 2015 visit to Moscow. He had frequent contact with Russia’s envoy to the U.S. in December despite allegations that the Russia-Syria alliance in Aleppo committed war crimes and Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election. U.S. investigators are examining Flynn’s calls, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, as part of an investigation of links between the Trump circle and the Russian government.

Moscow’s comments could be a propaganda effort to push the U.S. in a direction favorable to Russian goals, observers warned. It is coordinating with one member of the U.S.-led coalition, Turkey, and it has previously misrepresented that cooperation as a sign that the U.S. is on its side.

With Assad stronger than he has been for years, Russia is now playing a lead role in trying to freeze the conflict between the Syrian dictator and the array of rebel groups that oppose him. A new round of peace talks sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran began in Kazakhstan on Monday.

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