US-Russian talks on their separate fights against the Islamic State group are becoming more productive and more frequent, American officials said, with both sides trading information in real time and even outlining some of their strategic objectives in the months ahead. The progress dispels the notion that ties between the former Cold War foes are “frozen.” In the discussions, Russia has made clear its counter terrorism priority in Syria is retaking the ancient city of Palmyra, officials said. The US is determined to pressure IS’ headquarters in Raqqa.
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The closer contacts between the two countries have developed despite their bitter accusations against each other over the devastation in Aleppo and Moscow’s claim that relations are now “frozen on all practical levels.” The confidential military discussions aren’t focusing on their opposing positions in Syria’s civil war, where Russia is fighting alongside the government and the United States has backed rebel groups, officials said.
But US officials with knowledge of the ongoing conversations are crediting both sides with putting aside much of the public animosity, which has included Washington’s accusations of Russian war crimes in Aleppo and Moscow’s charges of American support for terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. Much of the talk has concerned the two nations’ immediate operations.
Since December 15, the US-led coalition has conducted airstrikes on about two dozen locations around Palmyra, destroying air defense weapons, tanks, aircraft shelters, storage bunkers and other vehicles and equipment. At the same time, US and Russian officials having been ensuring that the two militaries’ don’t cross paths in the airspace above the city that IS militants seized for the second time earlier this month, and that American strikes don’t mistakenly hit Russian or Syrian forces. But the talks have gone beyond the granular and even touched on broader US and Russian plans, according to several US officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the confidential discussions and demanded anonymity.
The Russians have spelled out that after they retake Palmyra, they want to move on IS militants congregated in Deir el-Zour, a city closer to the Iraqi border. Succeeding in Deir el-Zour, according to one US official, could take Russia several months. Palmyra became a more urgent mission after Islamic State militants ended the Syrian government’s nine-month hold over the city, seizing Russian and Syrian military equipment and weapons in the process. These include dangerous air defense artillery that could be used against coalition and friendly forces.