Air Force secretary worried about a US alliance with Russia in Syria

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James at AFA. (Photo: Breaking Defense)

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James at AFA. (Photo: Breaking Defense)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force’s top civilian leader didn’t mince words Sept. 20 when she doubted Moscow’s ability to make good on potential military cooperation with the United States in targeting Islamic State forces in Syria, saying Russia likely can’t be counted on to stick to the deal.

“This would be a ‘transactional’ situation, it’s not a situation where there’s a great deal of trust,” Air Force Sec. Deborah Lee James said during a briefing with reporters at the 2016 Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference here.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in mid-September, saying that coalition and Russian aircraft would work together to target terrorist forces in Syria after a week-long cease-fire. It is unclear whether the deal will stick after reports that an aid convoy was targeted during the lull in fighting, with both sides pointing fingers at the other for breaking the terms of the short truce.

Wading into diplomatic waters, James also warned that allying with Russia could anger U.S. partners in the ongoing operations against ISIS in Syria, hinting that countries like Turkey and Baltic state partners would balk at cooperating on strikes if Russians are in the room.

“Coalition cohesion will be important,” James said. “We have more than 60 countries participating in this — we wouldn’t want to lose coalition members.”

But James offered her starkest critique of the Russian military on an issue that has increasingly plagued American military efforts overseas in the court of public opinion. Top U.S. military officials are worried that if Russia and the U.S. are jointly running air strikes, America will share the blame for bombs that go astray.

“We are extremely precise with our weaponry, Russia is not,” James said. “So we would want to have some form of accountability for the dropping of these weapons to ensure that if there are civilian casualties, clearly it’s not us.”

Military officials have been increasingly pressed on how the U.S. and its allies would work alongside Russian forces in Syria on everything from coordinating air strikes to sharing intelligence on enemy positions. Most military leaders, particularly in the Air Force, have taken a wait and see attitude, wondering whether the diplomatic rapprochement will ever result in a military alliance.

“Once the decisions are made on how this cooperation will occur … and we see that the cease-fire holds for the time that the secretary of state has laid out, then we’re going to step very carefully to make sure that what is said in terms of the intent actually results in actions,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

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