ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Sept. 20, 2016 — Despite recent complications, the United States is still seeking to coordinate with Russia on strikes in Syria in an effort to protect the civilian population, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday.
"What I'm trying to do is in my lane fully support the path to getting a verifiable cessation of hostilities that'll mitigate the loss of life of the Syrian people and put us on a path towards political transition," Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford told reporters traveling with him.
Under a recent ceasefire deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia, a joint implementation cell for coordination between the two countries would be created after certain conditions are met.
Those conditions include a verifiable cessation of hostilities and the delivery of food aid to the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where the United Nations says 275,000 people remain trapped without food, water, proper shelter or medical care.
Avoiding a Humanitarian Disaster
Dunford said there is general consensus in the region that, "as difficult as this may be, that probably dealing with the Russians right now is one of the paths that might mitigate the risk of civilian casualties and humanitarian disaster in Aleppo."
There is a sense of caution as well, he said.
"This is not a relationship based on trust. We've made that point many times," Dunford said. "It's a transaction for a specific purpose, and I think they believe that as long as we approach it that way that it's worth pursuing."
The coalition's focus in Syria remains on targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but there are concerns about the al-Qaida-linked group al-Nusra, the chairman said.
"The vast majority of our intelligence collection capability is toward the [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and will remain against [them] because that's the primary threat," he said. "We don't have the luxury of addressing threats sequentially. We've got to address them simultaneously."
The U.S., Dunford said, is doing everything it can to try to support the cessation of hostilities in Syria. He did express concern, however, about coordinating information with Russia and then having a strike occur that violated international law.
"We would want to mitigate the risk that we would be responsible for a strike that would result in indiscriminate killing -- that is probably one of the biggest risks that we want to mitigate from a military perspective," the chairman said.
U.S. officials have accused Russia and Syria of indiscriminate bombings in Syria, including using barrel bombs.
"Our job is to develop a construct within which we do mitigate the risk of being involved in any violation of the Law of Armed Conflict or any unnecessary loss of civilian life," Dunford said.
Complications With 'Unhelpful Rhetoric'
A Sept. 17 coalition airstrike south of Dayr Az Zawr, Syria, is under investigation, Dunford pointed out.
The strike was halted shortly after it began, he said, because Russia said the strike was hitting Syrian government forces.
The coalition goes through a rigorous process to identify, develop and then strike targets, the chairman said.
"Thousands of strikes we've conducted with minimal loss of civilian life and we haven’t hit the regime here before and we haven’t hit Russian forces here before," he said.
There has been "a lot of unhelpful rhetoric over the last couple of days," Dunford said, but that has not "derailed the process" to seek a cessation of hostilities and meet conditions that would allow the creation of the joint implementation cell with Russia.(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)