U.S., Russia Renew Syria Talks as Putin Mulls Sending Troops

Putin Talks of Sending Russian Combat Troops to Syria
  • Kremlin spokesman says Syrian request would be discussed
  • Syria willing to ask if need arises, foreign minister says

The U.S. and Russian defense chiefs held talks on Syria as a Kremlin official said troops might be sent into combat in the war-ravaged country if President Bashar al-Assad’s government requests help.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu by telephone on Friday for the first time since he took office at the Pentagon in February. They “agreed to further discuss mechanisms” to avert potential conflicts between their nations’ militaries in Syria, and to discuss the campaign against Islamic State terrorists, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.

The Obama administration’s decision to renew top-level defense contacts with Moscow, which were cut off over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, reflects an effort to “get clarity on what Russia’s intentions are, what they intend to do” in Syria, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sending signals to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that he may be willing to allow Assad, an ally, to be eased out of power, according to officials of some countries and Syrian opposition leaders. At the same time, though, Russia has been expanding its military role in Syria.

Russian Troops

While the prospect of Russian troops entering combat operations in Syria is still hypothetical, “if there is a request, it will be discussed as part of bilateral contacts,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Friday. “Of course it will be discussed and considered.”

The U.S., which says Assad must go as part of resolving the conflict, has accused Russia of increasing military aid to Syria in recent weeks by sending tanks, artillery and personnel, and setting up what the Pentagon says may be a forward airbase near the coastal city of Latakia. Syria also hosts Russia’s only naval facility outside the former Soviet Union at Tartus.

Russia wants to “create a credible basis for a negotiation over Syria that it can use as leverage” in resolving the confrontation with the U.S. over Ukraine, while also preparing for a possible “Alawite statelet” to emerge, Reva Bhalla, vice president of global analysis at Stratfor Inc. in Austin, Texas, said in a report published Sept. 15. The Alawite minority in Syria, which includes the Assad family, is a religious group within Islam.

“Knowing that any negotiated settlement is likely to fall apart in the end, the Russian plan is to help Syria’s Alawites carve out a de facto state,” Bhalla said. Latakia is an Alawaite enclave.

Kerry’s Comments

President Barack Obama believes that a military-to-military conversation “is an important next step,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in London on Friday in comments that broached the possibility that Assad might not have to step down immediately under an agreement.

Kerry said the U.S. focus remains on destroying Islamic State terrorists operating in Syria and Iraq“and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad. But we’re looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground.”

Putin said on Tuesday that the fight against Islamic State should take precedence for the global community over changing the Assad regime, and Russia backs the Syrian government in fighting terrorism.

The hour-long call between Shoigu and Carter focused on “the need to coordinate bilateral and multilateral efforts to combat international terrorism,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, according to the Interfax news service.

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