WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. general said on Thursday he had not received any new guidance about the war in Syria, four days after the conflict was discussed in a closed-door meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump and Putin both praised U.S.-Russia military ties and spoke vaguely about Syria to reporters on Monday after their talks in Helsinki, Finland, noting shared concerns for the security of Syria’s neighbor, Israel.
Russia’s envoy to the United Nations was even quoted as saying on Thursday that the summit “will positively affect efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict.”
Still, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, who as the head of Central Command oversees U.S. military forces in the Middle East, said there was “no new guidance for me as a result of the Helsinki discussions as of yet.”
“For us right now, it’s kind of steady as she goes. We have received no further direction than we’ve currently been operating under,” Votel said at a Pentagon news briefing, speaking via video link from his offices in Tampa, Florida.
The summit in Helsinki sparked a storm of criticism in the United States and abroad after Trump refused to blame Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, something Putin denies.
Trump later said he had misspoken, and the White House has been struggling to contain a political outcry and confusion over the summit ever since.
But beyond the controversy over Trump’s remarks, there were broad unanswered questions as to what — if anything — was agreed during his one-on-one discussions with Putin in Helsinki. Even senior U.S. officials like Votel appeared unaware of how the talks might affect their work.
Trump on Thursday said he looked forward to a second meeting with Putin so the two could start implementing plans on grappling with “terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more.” The specifics of those plans, if they exist, were not known.
Trump surprised some U.S. defense officials by asserting, while standing next to Putin, that the U.S. and Russian militaries “do coordinate in Syria” and that they both got along “probably better than our political leaders.”
Votel stressed that U.S.-Russian militaries do not coordinate in Syria and their interactions, while professional, were tightly restricted by U.S. law. The remarks appeared to address speculation following the summit that the militaries of the former Cold War foes might be asked to cooperate.
“The National Defense Authorization Act, as a law, prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating, with Russian forces,” Votel said.
Asked whether he would able to comply with any requests for some degree of cooperation in Syria, Votel suggested that such a consideration would necessarily involve U.S. lawmakers, who wrote the law restricting U.S.-Russian military interactions.
“Any space would have to be created by Congress or a waiver that they would approve to allow us to do something like that,” Votel said.
“I have not asked for that at this point, and we’ll see what direction comes down.”
Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bernadette Baum