Russia and U.S. military leaders hold rare call over Moscow's role in Syria
Moscow would consider sending troops to fight in Syria if Damascus asks for help: Putin spokesman
U.S. and Russian military leaders began talks Friday over Moscow's buildup in Syria, signalling the U.S. is resigned to Russia's emerging plans but anxious to avoid dangerous misunderstandings on the battlefield.
A 50-minute phone call between U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter and Russia Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu marked the first military-to-military conversation between the two countries in more than a year. And it came as Russia continued to send aircraft, troops and military equipment into Syria and the U.S.-led coalition kept up its assault against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov broached the idea of direct talks earlier this week in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Shoigu initiated the call to Carter on Friday.
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U.S. officials are increasingly worried that Russia's plan to defend and support the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad could conflict with coalition airstrikes and other military operations against ISIS. The main focus of the phone call, according to a senior defence official, was to talk about how the fight against ISIS will go forward without miscalculations.
Russia has called for a broad coalition to fight ISIS and has indicated that helping Assad's military is the best way to do that. However, U.S. policy has centred for the duration of the civil war in Syria on the idea that Assad must step down to make way for a new government. Until recently, Russia had seemed to agree with that policy.
The U.S. has been concerned about how to respond to Russia's increased support for Assad and how to interpret the intent behind the delivery of tanks, helicopters and other military equipment to a base in the coastal province of Latakia.
A senior U.S. official said Shoigu told Carter that Russia's increased military activities are defensive in nature and designed to honour Moscow's commitments to the Assad government.
Russia may send ground forces
A U.S. intelligence official said that while Moscow's ultimate intentions are unclear, initial signs suggest a focus on providing air support to Syrian forces and to humanitarian relief operations. The official said the U.S. expects Russia to send ground forces to protect and support these operations.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
On Friday, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would consider sending troops to fight in Syria if Damascus requested them.
Kerry, meanwhile, in comments made to a London television station, said the U.S. campaign against ISIS will continue unabated "and we need to make sure those don't conflict with Russia's efforts against ISIL."
"We welcome their help to get rid of ISIL and to have a legitimate political transition," Kerry said. "But you will not end the crisis of Syria as long as Assad remains this magnet for people to come in and fight. We have to find a way forward on a political transition."
U.S. wants to avoid escalation
In the phone conversation between Carter and Shoigu, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the U.S. defence secretary "emphasized the importance of pursuing such consultations in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria."
U.S.-Russian talks about the need for a peaceful political resolution in Syria have been occurring intermittently since 2012. Recent efforts have also included Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. suspended military relations with Russia last year over the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. It's not clear if Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or other U.S. military leaders will also reach out to their counterparts.
"This (Syria) crisis has got to be solved," Kerry said before meeting with the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in London.
"It is vital to avoid misunderstandings, miscalculations (and) not to put ourselves in a predicament where we are supposing something and the supposition is wrong," Kerry said.
After his third phone call with Lavrov since the Labour Day weekend, Kerry said Lavrov had told him Russia was interested only in confronting the threat posed by ISIS in Syria but "I am not taking that at face value."