WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia sparred Friday over whether they will maintain a hotline aimed at preventing midair collisions of their warplanes in Syria, with senior U.S. military officials contradicting Moscow's claims that it has suspended the "deconfliction" talks in protest of America's cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base.
The officials also said they're looking into whether Russia participated in the chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this week that prompted President Donald Trump's order for a retaliation. They said Russia has failed to control the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons or to account for chemical agents that were supposed to have been eliminated under a 2013 agreement, and may have been complicit in Tuesday's horrifying strike that involved the use of a sarin-like nerve gas.
In Moscow, the Russian government on Friday announced its own swift response to the American intervention against its Arab ally. It said it would cut the hotline that was established after Russia joined Syria's civil war in 2015 to help Syrian President Bashar Assad's government against opposition groups. The hotline's primary intent is to ensure Russian planes conducting combat missions in Syria's skies don't stumble into an accident or confrontation with aircraft flown by the U.S.-led coalition fighting an Islamic State insurgency in the north of the country.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reportedly said that Moscow would consider reactivating the memorandum with the United States on preventing air incidents in Syria.
But the senior U.S. military officials, who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity, said U.S.-Russian discussions have continued since Thursday night's attack on the Syrian military base. They said American officials asked the Russians on Friday if the military talks would continue. The Russians said they would.
Pressed on whether the Russians were actively participating in the safety calls, including one on Friday, one U.S. official said conversations were ongoing.
The officials' comments, however, triggered a response from Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. He said reports that the hotline was active were wrong, and that the U.S. military attache in Moscow was called to the ministry to be told that the communications would stop at midnight Saturday.
Neither side had previously expressed an interest in severing the line of communication. Even when the U.S., under President Barack Obama, briefly halted talks with Russia on a Syrian peace process, both sides maintained the military communications. Eliminating the hotline could enhance the risk of an accident involving the two nuclear powers.
The U.S. officials, however, said they were also reviewing evidence to see if Russia was complicit in the attack on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, where more than 80 people were killed.
They said a drone belonging either to Russia or Syria was seen hovering over the site of the chemical weapons attack Tuesday after it happened. The drone returned late in the day as citizens were going to a nearby hospital for treatment. The hospital was bombed shortly afterward, officials said, possibly in an effort to cover up evidence of chemical weapons usage.
The U.S. says a sarin-like nerve agent was used. Syria denies the claim. And the Kremlin says Syria's government wasn't responsible.
The U.S. officials also said they're aware of Russians with chemical weapons expertise who have been in Syria.
Detailing the results of the U.S. missile strikes, the U.S. officials showed graphics and photographs of the strikes and said 20 aircraft were destroyed, including some that were inside hardened shelters. Also, the strikes took out the air defense system, all the aircraft hangers and the petroleum storage. So far, they said, they do not have any confirmation of any military or civilian deaths.
Officials said Russian officials called the U.S. earlier on Thursday after seeing media reports that missile strikes were under discussion, to make sure the Americans knew there were Russians on the Syrian base. The U.S. called the Russians less than an hour before the missiles were launched to alert them of the attack so they could insure their people were safe.
In a related development, U.S. officials said that a Russian warship, the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, had moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Thursday. Two U.S. Navy Destroyers, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, launched the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria on Thursday from the eastern Mediterranean. The two ships are moving west, and officials said there have been no interactions with the Admiral Grigorovich.