WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has told Russia broad areas in which U.S. special forces are operating in Syria and asked them not to strike there, U.S. military officials said on Thursday.
The move marks a step up in U.S.-Russian military coordination in Syria, which the United States had previously said was limited to a mechanism to avoid accidents in the air as both countries undertake bombing campaigns there.
Lieutenant General Charles Brown, the head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, disclosed the request at a Thursday news briefing at the Pentagon.
“We told them (the Russians) these are ... general areas where we have coalition forces that we don’t want them to strike there, because all it’s going to do is escalate things,” Brown said. “It’s really just to maintain the safety for our forces that are both in the air and in this case on the ground.”
The United States announced in October it would deploy dozens of special operators in northern Syria to advise opposition forces in their fight against the militant group Islamic State.
A senior U.S. defense official said at the time that the United States had not notified Russia of the special forces’ location in Syria, but was open to doing so in order to keep the troops safe.
Russia launched air strikes in Syria last year saying it was targeting Islamic State militants. But rebels on the ground and Western officials say the strikes have mainly targeted moderate rebel groups not associated with Islamic State, including U.S.-trained fighters.
Major powers agreed last week to a limited cessation of hostilities in Syria in a deal that takes effect at the end of this week. Russia says the “cessation” does not apply to its air strikes, which have shifted the balance of power toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States has not shared with the Russians specific locations or times of the U.S. special operators’ movements, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said on Thursday. The request was made via the two countries’ defense ministries, and U.S. Secretary Ash Carter was aware of the request, Cook said.
“We provided (the Russians) a geographical area that we asked them to stay out of because of the risk to U.S. forces,” Cook said. “Up to this point they have honored this request.”
He declined to comment specifically on the timing of the request.
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Alan Crosby