The Russian Ministry of Defense slammed US Gen. Joseph Votel Tuesday, accusing America’s top military commander in the Middle East of discrediting President Donald Trump’s position after Votel expressed hesitancy about working with Russia in Syria.
“With his statements, General Votel not only discredited the official position of his supreme commander-in-chief, but also exacerbated the illegality under international law and US law of the military presence of American servicemen in Syria,” the Russian Ministry said in a statement published on social media in response to an interview Votel gave to ABC News.
“I would want to make sure that this isn’t something that we stepped into lightly,” Votel, the commander of US Central Command, said when asked about the idea of the US and Russia working together to facilitate the return of refugees.
“I am not recommending that. And that would be a pretty big step at this point,” Votel added.
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the issue of refugee return had been discussed during last week’s meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin but did not say that any agreements had been reached.
“There was a discussion between President Trump and President Putin about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back. The President shared with me the conversations that they’d had. It is important to the world that at the right time, through a voluntary mechanism, these refugees are able to return to their home country,” Pompeo told reporters at the United Nations.
“There’s lots of work to do to figure out how to implement that, but the United States certainly wants to be part of help achieving that resolution in Syria, make no mistake about it,” he added.
Votel told reporters at the Pentagon that he had received no new direction following the Trump-Putin meeting and Trump has also appeared to suggest that while many issues related to the region had been discussed, the implementation of any agreements would not take place until a second meeting between Trump and Putin.
The UN estimates that over 5 million Syrians have fled that country since the outbreak of the civil war there in 2011.
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis also confirmed that the US was not cooperating with Russia in Syria while speaking with Pompeo in Palo Alto, California, alongside their Australian counterparts.
“In regard to Syria, what we do with the Russian Federation is we de-conflict our operations, we do not coordinate them,” Mattis said.
“We will not be doing anything additional until the secretary of state and the President have further figured out at what point we’re going to start working alongside our allies with Russia in the future, that has not happened yet and it would be premature for me to go into any more detail at this point because we’re not doing any more than this,” he added.
The Russian ministry’s statement on Votel also criticized the US presence in Syria, saying that “US forces are left with only one option to stay in Syria – to engage in cooperation with Russia and the country’s legal leadership in the process of assisting the return of refugees and temporarily displaced persons to their homes.”
On Monday, the House and Senate armed services committees released the final version of their compromise defense bill for 2019 that once again renewed a prohibition on “military-to-military cooperation” with Russia.
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko contributed reporting.