Senior Russian and US military officials have held talks on Syria. Though details remain undisclosed, the exchanges are seen as a reassuring sign that the military is keeping a cool head amid the tense political atmosphere.
The head of the Russian General Staff, First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov, had a phone call with the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, on Wednesday. Even though the details of the talk were scant, the conversation itself might be a sign of a de-escalation in what has recently appeared to be one of the most troubled periods of the Syrian conflict.
Tempers continue to be running high around Syria. With the major terrorist threat posed by Islamic State largely gone, the US and its allies appear to, once again, focus on its hostility toward Damascus.
In mid-March, the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, openly stated that Washington is ready to take action in Syria on its own if the UN Security Council fails to do so. She also recalled US actions following the alleged chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017.
She praised the US air strike on the Syrian governmental forces’ air base, launched just days after the Khan Sheikhoun incident and presented it as an example of a potential US unilateral action in Syria that could also be taken in the future.
Such statements were made amid reports about the militant groups in Syria plotting to stage chemical attacks against civilians under the guise of the Syrian government. The Russian military has repeatedly warned that such provocations could particularly be staged in Eastern Ghouta, where the governmental forces are battling extremists, who are constantly shelling Damascus residential areas.
The tensions reached a peak on March 13, when Gerasimov personally stated that Moscow is ready to retaliate in case the lives of its servicemen, stationed in Syria, are put in danger as a result of a US attack. He also warned that “there are many” Russian military personnel at the governmental forces’ facilities in Damascus.
That was one of the harshest statements Russia ever made in relation to the situation in Syria. It was also the first time it openly admitted a possibility of a direct clash between Russia and the US in the Middle Eastern country.
The prospect of an armed conflict, which seemingly already was looming large on the horizon, appeared to have cooled the hotheads as the top military of the two countries held a phone conversation on the evening of that same day. At that time, Gerasimov and Dunford agreed to maintain regular contact, which is what they appear to be doing, thus averting the danger of a real violent confrontation and keeping things under control.
On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said that the two high-ranking military officials “discussed the … situation in the Syrian Arab Republic as well as other urgent issues of mutual interest” and agreed to maintain their contacts.
A forthcoming meeting between Gerasimov and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, General Curtis Scaparrotti, is what could be regarded as another sign of thawing relations between the Russian and the western military. The two commanders exchanged views on urgent issues of international security in Wednesday’s phone call, and agreed to hold a meeting in the future, the Russian Defense Ministry said. Notably, it added that the conversation was held on the initiative of the NATO side.
There have been no meetings between Russian and NATO officials at such a level since 2014. Meanwhile, under the current circumstances, each such conciliatory gesture is seen as important – and the military on each side seem to be willing to make them.
Whilst the military seem to be trying to smooth over their differences, the politicians appear only to be intensifying them. The US has repeatedly attempted to further its political agenda by putting all the blame for the situation in Syria on Damascus and Moscow. It has failed to provide any solid evidence to substantiate its claims, though.
However, things seem to have lately changed for the better, even in the political arena. US President Donald Trump has recently called the Russian leader Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his re-election victory. Despite being sharply criticized for this move by the US media, Trump maintained that “getting along with Russia is a good thing” after all.