WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) refuses to explicitly say whether or not American military troops are planning to assist and protect U.S.-armed and trained Syrian rebels who come under attack by Russia.
Pentagon reporters grilled DOD press secretary Peter Cook about the issue during a briefing on Thursday, asking him numerous times if the U.S. military was committed to protecting American-backed Syrian rebels against Russia and respond if they were to come under attack by Moscow’s military.
U.S. officials, including John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have said that Russian airstrikes have hit American-backed Syrian rebels.
Yet Cook, at numerous times, dismissed Russia attacking Syrian rebels considered allies of the United States as speculative.
“You’re talking about a hypothetical situation, in which case specific opposition forces would be targeted, and we don’t have that situation right in front of us right now,” he said.
One of the reporters interrupted Cook, telling him, “It’s not hypothetical, though.”
Although the press secretary interrupted back, maintaining his position, the reporter continued, “No, [it’s not hypothetical] because the Russians are flying [and] the U.S. has said that they have a responsibility towards them. So does the fact that the Russians are flying now change the situation between the U.S. coalition and those Syrian rebels on the ground? It’s not hypothetical; it’s actually occurring.”
It remains unclear how the U.S. plans to respond to Russia attacking its Syrian allies.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters and lawmakers that the United States had a responsibility to assist and protect the Syrian trainees if they came under attack by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Cook now claims Carter’s statements about America’s responsibility to protect the trained moderate Syrian force do not apply to all moderate forces, saying “there are many players,” and at the time, the defense secretary was only referring to one group of trainees.
The Pentagon press secretary acknowledged that Russia was targeting areas where ISIS is not known to dwell.
“They do not appear to be hitting targets in areas where ISIL has operated,” he said.
Cook was asked if the Pentagon had made any contingency plans in case Russia decided to interfere with U.S. military efforts in Syria.
“We have taken appropriate steps to assess what’s going on there, taken the necessary precautions on behalf of our operations there, and we’re going to continue to do so but, we’re also having these conversations with the Russians now about trying to reduce risk to pilots flying over Syria,” responded the DOD spokesman.
“We’ve noted our concerns about where they’ve targeted so far and how it’s inconsistent with their own stated goal of defeating ISIL and we’re going to do everything in our power to again compel the Russians to take the fight to ISIL and to focus their energy and efforts there. That would be the most productive use of Russia’s time and energy and that’s a message that we’re going to continue to deliver,” he added.
Cook was provided ample opportunities to explicitly state the Obama administration’s position on whether or not it plans to protect Syrian allies against Russia.
Instead of giving a straightforward answer, Cook dismissed the whole issue as a hypothetical scenario despite assurances by Sen. McCain and other U.S. officials that the Russian military had struck Free Syrian Army rebels who had been armed and trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“I’m not going to get into hypothetical situations… we have made clear the importance of the moderate Syrian opposition in terms of Syria’s political future and that anything done to harm that moderate Syrian opposition is counterproductive to the end result that we believe is necessary and that is a political transition in Syria,” he said.
Despite claiming that Russia attacking U.S.-backed Syrian rebels is strictly speculative, Cook conceded that he could not say “with certainty” that no U.S. trained Syrian rebels have been targeted or struck by Russia’s military.
He contradicted himself a number of times, at one point saying the Pentagon did not have a clear picture of Russian activities in Syria and at another saying DOD did have an understanding of what Moscow was doing and the areas they were striking.
When asked if the Pentagon knows what areas the Russians have been striking, Cook responded, “Yes, we have an understanding of where they’ve struck. We don’t have all the details. We don’t have assessments of exactly what’s happened on the ground or why particular targets were hit and what the immediate results of all those airstrikes were.”
Although “we have an understanding of what they’re doing, we don’t have a clear understanding of their intentions,” he added.
The U.S. and Russia have two different visions for Syria. President Obama wants to remove Assad from power, while Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the Syrian dictator an ally.