Defense Secretary: Russia must ‘prove itself’ before collaboration in Syria

Defense Secretary: Russia must ‘prove itself’ before collaboration in Syria

By Loree Lewis   
Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks during a meeting about ISIS on Thursday at NATO headquarters in Brussels. At right is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and at left is Kenneth Handelman, who is performing the duties of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/DOD)

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday that Russia will need to “prove itself first” by upholding international laws before the United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies would be willing to work together against ISIS inside Syria.

“We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level, but our political leaders will engage and try to find a way forward where Russia, living up to its commitments, will return to a partnership of sorts with NATO,” Mattis said during a news conference from the NATO headquarters in Brussels. “But, Russia is going to have to prove itself first and live up to the commitments they’ve made in the Russia-NATO agreement.”

Cooperation between NATO and Russia was up-ended following the 2014 Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The United States ended military-to-military relations and enacted sanctions following the incursion and occupation.

Mattis’ comment came ahead of a meeting with NATO ministers on the counter-ISIS fight. Earlier Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin had called for closer cooperation with the intelligence services of NATO member states and encouraged cooperation in confronting in terrorism.

In the same televised remarks before an annual meeting of senior leaders of the FSB, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, Putin complained that NATO “is constantly provoking us and trying to draw us into confrontation,” according to the Associated Press.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford and his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valeriy Gerasimov, also met Thursday in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, for the first time since 2014 to discuss the state of the military-to-military relationship. The United States and Russia have maintained a line of communication to deconflict airspace over Syria, where both militaries are operating, but have otherwise had little contact.

Trump raised the possibility of cooperating with Russia in Syria during the 2016 campaign, and when Trump and Putin spoke by phone in late January the leaders came away hopeful that their nations could “move quickly to tackle terrorism,” according to the White House.

The relationship between the Cold War foes has been complicated by the conflict in Syria, where Russia is supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and has been accused of war crimes, and with the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

Mattis, who has called Russia the principal threat to the United States, said Thursday that he has “very little doubt that [Russia has] interfered or attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies.” He did not name which countries.

Amid reporting by CNN that the United States may be weighing whether to deploy conventional ground combat forces to Syria to accelerate the fight against ISIS and the assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Mattis said he is still talking to allies and assessing their positions the mission.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said Thursday that he can’t see the U.S. “putting a large ground force in to take and occupy territory in Syria.”

Accelerating the fight could also involve arming local Kurdish forces, known as the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which NATO member Turkey objects to.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik reportedly underlined this opposition in a meeting with Mattis on the sidelines of the NATO ministerial, repeating Turkey’s stance that arming the YPG would embolden the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The PKK, also an ethnic kurdish group, has fought a three decade insurgency inside of Turkey’s border, and is considered a terror group by the U.S. and Turkey.

Mattis told allies at the top of a closed-door meeting on the counter-ISIS effort that “this is not something that will be over with quickly, but we certainly intend to accelerate this fight.”

“One of the reasons we’re here today, is to lay this out to you,” Mattis said.

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