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Sceptical Pentagon drafts military cooperation plans on Syria with Russia

If the truce holds, officials say that Moscow and Washington could start cooperating on a level not seen so far this century
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his US counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou on 5 September 2016 (AFP)

A sceptical Pentagon was on Monday drafting plans to take the extremely unusual step of collaborating militarily with longtime foe Russia in Syria should a tenuous truce in the war-ravaged nation stick.

Under a deal announced last week by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, the two powers would begin the joint targeting of certain militant groups, if Syria's latest cessation of hostilities lasts for seven days.

As well as bringing a temporary end to the fighting, the deal aims to provide crucial aid to hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians.

"Everyone is prepared for rapidly implementing this agreement if it crosses that threshold, but we are also ready to walk away if it doesn't hold," a US defence official said. 

"There's a lot of plans, but it still hasn't come together." 

AFP talked to several officials inside and outside the Pentagon about the possible US-Russian military cooperation. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing plans.

As it currently stands, US officials envision establishing a "Joint Implementation Center" to share targeting information for air strikes.

Officials said the center will be established in Geneva, and the Pentagon will ensure none of its intelligence on how it acquires targets is shared with Russia.

And rather than conducting any sort of joint air strikes, the sharing would - at least initially - be limited to exchanging target lists, officials stressed.

Under the strained truce, which took effect on Monday evening amidst reports of minor violations, the Syrian government must refrain from fighting in areas where "moderate" rebels are deployed. 

Areas with the presence of the Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from al-Nusra Front after renouncing ties with al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State group will not be subject to the ceasefire, although it was unclear what would happen to groups that have been fighting alongside Fateh al-Sham, which are not deemed to be terrorist organisations by the US. 

Following the seven-day period, Russian and US-led coalition forces would then begin to coordinate on IS and al-Sham targets, the officials said. 

"I have no reason to be very optimistic that this [truce] will hold. If it does, then it's our obligation to make this work as best we can," the defence official said.

Russia entered Syria's brutal civil war in September last year, conducting air strikes for Assad and helping the president remain in power. 

At the same time, the United States has led an international military coalition combatting IS in northern Syria and in Iraq. 

No precedent this century

To prevent coalition and Russian planes flying into each other in Syria's crowded air space, the two sides have already agreed on a "memorandum of understanding" through which they could avoid any mid-air mishaps.

But the new deal would take communications several steps further, as the two sides have not shared target details before. 

Officials said there is no precedent this century of the United States and Russia collaborating like this.

Many in the Pentagon are deeply uneasy about the proposed collaboration, given the frequent disconnect between Russia's words and apparent facts on the ground, such as in eastern Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deny backing the 28-month, pro-Moscow insurgency.

"The proof will be in the pudding," another defence official said. 

"We'll know soon enough one way or another. Either they will [honour the truce] or they won't, and we will react accordingly."

Pentagon chief Ashton Carter is dubious. 

Ahead of the truce announcement last week, he said Russia has a "clear ambition to erode the principled international order." 

Pentagon officials have been especially troubled by Russia's use of "dumb" bombs - unguided munitions with limited accuracy - throughout its campaign, resulting in claims of massive civilian casualties. 

Another US defence official said it was "absolutely" key that any military collaboration "takes prevention of civilian casualties into account as a high priority".

Middle East experts Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras from the Center for a New American Security said on Monday that civilian casualties were the new truce's most signficant issue. 

"There is no mechanism to punish the Assad regime and Russia if they conduct attacks against civilians, continue to refuse humanitarian assistance access to besieged opposition communities, or return to the systematic targeting of US-supported and acceptable armed opposition groups," the pair wrote in a statement.