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Top US, Russian military chiefs meet to discuss Syria, avoiding conflicts

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army, addresses National Guard leaders at the National Guard Association of the United States 140th General Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, Aug. 25, 2018. (Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill/U.S. Army National Guard)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The top U.S. and Russian military commanders have held talks on Syria, where both countries are militarily engaged, and on improving mutual communication.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, met in Switzerland’s capital, Bern, on December 18.

They discussed avoiding conflicts in military operations and the risks of miscalculations, a U.S. Department of Defense statement said.

Despite the conflict in Syria and tensions between Moscow and Washington, the U.S. and Russian militaries have kept open a permanent channel of communication between their leaders to avoid accidental confrontations in Syria.

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Colonel DeDe Halfhill said the two commanders discussed “Syria, strategic stability, and a variety of other operational and strategic issues to enhance deconfliction, improve understanding, and reduce risk.”

“Both leaders recognize the importance of maintaining regular communication to avoid miscalculation and to promote transparency,” she said.

However, the military leaders have more to discuss.

The statement cited a December 16 incident when “U.S. Coast Guard officials protested that a Russian spy ship was operating ‘in an unsafe manner’ off the coast of South Carolina.”

Also, the U.S. destroyer USS Ross was tailed by a Russian ship after it entered the Black Sea.

“There have been incidents of Russian aircraft buzzing ships and crowding U.S. planes,” the statement said.

U.S. officials stressed the meeting was “not an effort to return the U.S.-Russia relationship to normal,” adding that “Russian actions in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and Libya have brought condemnation to Russia and that Russian efforts to divide NATO and its actions to undermine democratic elections are worrisome.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the two “exchanged views on strategic stability, the situation in Syria and other regions, and the measures to prevent incidents during the parties’ military activities.”

It was Gerasimov’s first meeting with Milley, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs in September.

Milley’s predecessor, General Joe Dunford, met several times with Gerasimov, most recently in March in Vienna.