The insertion of U.S. Special Forces into Syria became even more bungled on Thursday when the Defense Department revealed that it had asked Russia to avoid bombing certain areas inside the country because that’s where the several dozen soldiers are working.
"We've told them these are areas that we have coalition forces in — general areas where we have coalition forces," Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, head of U.S. Air Force Central Command, told reporters during a Pentagon press conference from his headquarters in Qatar. "We don't want them to strike there because all it's going to do is escalate things. And I don't think the Russians want to escalate against the coalition.”
The request goes above and beyond the memorandum of understanding Washington and Moscow reached soon after Russian forces deployed to Syria last September. That agreement was aimed at avoiding military air collisions as the two former Cold War enemies carried out bombing campaigns — Washington against Islamic State forces, Moscow on behalf the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook confirmed that the request had been made, but refused to get into specifics “other than to say that there was an effort made to protect the safety of our people from the risk of Russian airstrikes.”
"And that those steps were taken, and those so far have been honored,” he added.
Cook said he has no additional requests between the two countries to disclose.
Just because Washington and Moscow have an agreement not to bomb specific sites doesn’t necessarily mean that an accident can’t happen or that the Syrian air force, dilapidated as it is, has to abide by it. So the revelation of the deal is bound to set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail. President Obama has long been criticized by Republicans who feel he is not doing enough to eradicate ISIS, especially in Syria.
The condemnation reached new heights in October when the president announced he had decided to send around 50 Special Operations forces into Syria to assist moderate rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, with everyone from Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-AZ) to GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump skewering the decision and its very public announcement.
"I think we have a president who just doesn't know what he's doing," Trump said at the time. "You either do it or you don't do it. Fifty people. He puts 50 people.”
While the administration signaled the number of commandos could grow, the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin, and possibly Assad himself, know where they are located may spark waves of new attacks on Obama for potentially putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.