Crossed Wires in Trump Administration over First US-Russian Air Sortie in Syria
The first US-Russian air attack in Syria on Monday, Jan. 23 never happened, according to an official denial by the US Defense Department.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have evidence that it did. In fact, six long-range Russian strategic Tu-22M3 bombers flew in that day from their base in Russia to bomb Islamic State forces in and around the eastern Syrian town of Deir ez-Zour in order to ease the pressure on the Syrian forces defending their positions and a regional air base.
As the Russian bombers neared their target, a pair of American F/A-18 Super Hornet bombers took to the air, in the vital role of mission escorts. In case a Russian bomber was shot down by rocket fire from the ground, the US Hornets were on hand to safeguard the crash site and the Russian air crew against ISIS forces until the Russian rescue teams arrived.
The twin American jets flew in directly from their Gulf bases. After the mission, both the US and Russian warplanes returned to their respective bases.
From that point on, the joint operation became snarled in a web of confusion and denials.
The Russian Defense ministry issued the following communiqué:
ISIS storage facilities, militants eliminated in joint strike conducted by Russian aerospace forces, intl coalition forces in Syria, with coordinates received from US.
This report was promptly denied by the Pentagon, after spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway told reporters on that same Monday:
There is no military-to-military coordination for airstrikes over targets in Syria.
Another spokesman, Eric Pahon, stated:
The Department of Defense is not coordinating airstrikes with the Russian military in Syria.
He added that he was not aware of any coalition member aiding Russia “in this instance.”
At the same time, the White House signaled it was open in principle to joint military strikes with Russia in Syria.
The situation was further confused when, earlier in the day, Russian media reported that Russia had received US coordinates of ISIS targets in Al-Bab, an ISIS-held town in the north.
Following a reconnaissance check, Russia and two “coalition jets” conducted air strikes in the region. The Turkish air force is known to be deeply involved in the battle for Al Bab.
A further Russian statement referred to another joint Russian-coalition air strike on terrorist targets without mentioning Deir ez-Zour.
The confusion over the first joint US-Russian air operation in Syria appears to derive from the mixed signals sent out by the Trump White House and the Pentagon.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that the operation caught the new Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis unprepared, just two days after he first stepped into his Pentagon office on Saturday, Jan. 21.
Later Monday, Jan. 23, the Trump White House and the Pentagon were still sending mixed signals about potential US military cooperation with Russian forces in Syria, at the same time as Moscow was reporting that American commanders had provided intelligence to their Russian counterparts.
In his first official briefing to the media, White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that President Donald Trump would be willing to work with Moscow to fight the Islamic State group in Syria, in contrast to the Obama administration.
But still, the Defense Department stood by its strong denial that any joint operations with Russia in Syria were even being considered by top military brass, least of all that one had taken place.
The new President will have to sort out the crossed wires. It will also be necessary to track down the source of the order to launch the joint operation with Russia and who posted the directive to US commanders in the Gulf to deploy two Hornets as escorts for the Russian bombing strike over Deir ez-Zour.