(Update: A U.S. defense official told the Associated Press Wednesday morning that Russia has launched airstrikes in Syria in support of the Assad regime. Other press reports said the target of these first Russian air strikes is not ISIS, but Assad's homegrown opposition, which the U.S. supports to a limited degree.)
(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Ash Carter has directed his staff to "open lines of communication with Russia on de-confliction," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said on Tuesday.
The goal of the talks is to maintain the "integrity of coalition air operations" over Syria and the "safety of coalition pilots," Cook said. "We do not want misjudgment and miscalculation. We do not want an accident to take place."
Tuesday's announcement came one day after President Obama, a harsh critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who plans to use his own air force to support the Assad regime in its fight against Islamic State terrorists.
"We're literally beginning the conversation, trying to reach out to determine exactly what the next step will be," Cook told reporters at a news conference. He said it will take some time for the "logistics" of the "de-confliction" talks to be worked out.
Why characterize the talks as "de-confliction" rather than "coordination," a reporter asked Cook.
"Well, because our first...goal here is to avoid conflict in the air between any future Russian military activities and the ongoing activities of the coalition. We do not want their activities to interfere with what's -- what's happening, and that's our expectation," Cook responded.
"We're going to have these conversations with the -- the Russians and -- and through the course of those conversations, we'll have a better idea what they intend to do; and more importantly, we'll make clear what we intend to do or we continue to -- to do over the air in Syria with regard to the coalition air campaign."
Cook couldn't say what the conversations will entail "until we actually have these conversations."
He indicated that the U.S. is concerned, not only about the safetly of coalition forces, but also about the moderate Syrian opposition that is fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime:
"I think the secretary and others within the administration have made clear our concerns about any effort that would be made that would harm the opposition forces, the moderate opposition forces that are taking the fight to ISIL," Cook said.
"They have been very effective, and we will continue to provide coalition air support for some of those groups. And ...obviously, anything that undermines their effectiveness would be something of concern."
On Wednesday, Russian lawmakers voted unanimously to let President Vladimir Putin send Russian troops to Syria. "The Kremlin sought to play down the decision, saying it will only use its air force there, not ground troops," the Associated Press reported.
Sergei Ivanov, a top Putin aide, said in televised remarks that Moscow will use its air force "in order to support the government Syrian forces in their fight against the Islamic State" group.
Putin and other officials have said Russia is providing weapons and training to Syrian President Bashar Assad's army to help it combat the Islamic State group. Recent satellites images, however, have shown giant Russian military cargo planes in Syria, and Russian navy transport vessels have been shuttling back and forth for weeks to ferry troops, weapons and supplies to Syria.
According to the Pentagon spokesman, "the United States and Russia have a common interest in fighting ISIL in Syria." Cook quoted Defense Secretary Carter as saying that the goal should be to take the fight to ISIL and not to provide support or defend the Assad regime.
But on Wednesday, it appears that Russia is doing just that -- providing support for Assad.
As CNSNews.com reported in July, incoming Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph DUnford Jr. told Congress at his confirmation hearing that "Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security."
Dunford noted that Russia is a nuclear power "that not only has the capability to violate the sovereignty of our allies and to do things that are inconsistent with our national interests, but are in the process of doing so,” he said.
“So you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States I’d have to point to Russia – and if you look at their behavior it’s nothing short of alarming.”
(The Associated Press contributed some of the information used in this report.)