ROME — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, in his strongest message to date, said Wednesday the U.S.-led coalition will not agree to cooperate with Russia in the fight against the Islamic State and no collaboration is possible as long as Moscow continues to strike other targets.
He said the U.S. will limit its discussions with Russia to basic, technical talks about efforts to ensure that flights over Syria are conducted safely and, "That's it."
"Despite what the Russians say, we have not agreed to cooperate with Russia, so long as they continue to pursue mistaken strategy and hit these targets," Carter told reporters during a news conference in Rome with Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti.
Carter's comments came a day after Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov complained about the narrow scope of the U.S. talks and said the Russians want broad discussions on international cooperation between Russia and the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
The United States, Carter said, is not prepared to cooperate with a strategy of Russia's that is "tragically flawed."
"They continue to hit targets that are not ISIL," Carter said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. "We believe that is a fundamental mistake."
The U.S. wanted make its intentions very clear in the wake of the Russian remarks, said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to discuss the situation publicly.
Carter said he is concerned about the Syrian ground offensive that began Wednesday backed by Russian airpower. Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, has hit Western-backed rebels fighting Assad. The U.S. maintains that the only route to peace in Syria is to remove Assad from power.
The U.S. was still waiting Wednesday for a formal response from Russia on a draft document laying out proposed technical safety procedures for the aircraft flights, the defense official said. The U.S. will not set up a meeting with the Russians until that occurs, the official said.
Russia on Tuesday informed the United States that Moscow is willing to continue talks to ensure that the two countries' aircraft don't interfere with each other.
The Pentagon only wants talks aimed at making sure there are no conflicts, collisions or other problems as the U.S.-led coalition and the Russians fly over Syria. The U.S. side has proposed a number of safety measures, including using specific international radio frequencies for distress calls by military pilots flying in Syrian airspace.
The defense official said that so far there have been no incidents or conflicts with the Russians, even though they are sharing the same battlespace in the skies over Syria. The official said the U.S. pilots know where the Russian aircraft are and can see each other.
A senior defense official said there was at least one instance in which a Russian aircraft flew within a few miles of a US drone. The official said it was far enough away that there was no danger and was probably unintentional. The official said the incident would not be considered an intercept.
Carter had called on Russian leaders to discuss Moscow's military activities in Syria, reflecting urgent concerns about Russian aircraft violating Turkish airspace. NATO on Monday denounced Russia for "irresponsible behavior" for allowing its warplanes to cross into Turkey.
U.S. and Russian officials met once by video conference late last week, before the Russian incursion into Turkish airspace.
Carter and other NATO defense ministers are expected to discuss how to deal with the problem when they meet in Brussels Thursday.
The U.S.-led coalition has been routinely conducting airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria.
Russia says the airstrikes it began last week are directed against the Islamic State group, as well as al-Qaida's Syrian affiliates. But the U.S. and France say at least some of the strikes appear to have hit Western-backed rebel factions fighting government troops, with the real goal of protecting Assad.
On a weeklong trip to Europe, Carter is focused on reassuring European allies of U.S. support as they face growing security threats from a more aggressive Russia and militant extremists from north Africa.