U.S. Begins Military Talks With Russia on Syria – Michael R. Gordon/The New York Times
LONDON — As the first Russian combat aircraft arrived in Syria, the Obama administration reached out to Moscow on Friday to try to coordinate actions in the war zone and avoid an accidental escalation of one of the world’s most volatile conflicts.
The diplomatic initiative amounted to a pivot for the Obama administration, which just two weeks ago delivered a stern warning to the Kremlin that its military buildup in Syria risked an escalation of the civil war there or even an inadvertent confrontation with the United States. Last week, President Obama condemned Russia’s move as a “strategy that’s doomed to failure.”
But the White House seemed to acknowledge that the Kremlin had effectively changed the calculus in Syria in a way that would not be soon reversed despite vigorous American objections. The decision to start talks also reflected a hope that Russia might yet be drawn into a more constructive role in resolving the four-year-old civil war.
At Mr. Obama’s instruction, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Friday opened a dialogue on Syria with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, aimed at making sure that American and Russian forces avoid running into each other by mistake. The Russians have sent tanks, other equipment, marines and now combat aircraft to their new military hub near Latakia in western Syria. The Americans have flown hundreds of air missions in Syria striking the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
But while Mr. Carter’s initial military-to-military talks were limited in scope, officials indicated that the larger goal was to draw the Russians into a political process that would ultimately replace Syria’s government of President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally of the Kremlin.
“The president believes that a mil-to-mil conversation is an important next step,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday in London, where he was visiting to consult with allies. “It will help to define some of the different options that are available to us.”
Still, the stakes have become even higher, as a senior United States official on Friday confirmed that four Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft had been deployed to the air base in recent days, along with four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, said that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered weapons and equipment to the air base in the past 10 days.
The Russian military buildup in Syria could serve the Kremlin’s interests in several ways. It could help strengthen Mr. Assad, whom Russia has long backed and who has suffered a number of military reversals in recent months. It could put Moscow in a stronger position to shape the formation of a new Syrian government if Mr. Assad is pushed out of power. It also helps Russia cement its strategic interests in what experts say is its most important new Middle East military outpost in decades.
Some former diplomats view the Russian move as a brazen effort to undercut American influence in the region.
“The whole region is watching this,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador in Iraq and Turkey. “Russia is trying to change the security dynamic in the Middle East and demonstrating that it supports its allies to the hilt. The White House is sitting there and worrying about de-conflicting airplanes when we should be upping our efforts against Assad.”
But after failing to impede the buildup by convincing nations to close their airspace to Russian transport planes — Bulgaria banned the flights but Iraq did not — the White House is trying to make the best out of a situation it feels it is powerless to prevent.
Administration officials have long argued that Mr. Assad’s brutal and often indiscriminate crackdown against its foes has encouraged support for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. And they seem intent on exploring the closed-door comments by Russian diplomats that they are not wedded to the Syrian leader.
As Western officials look for a political solution, they appear to be demonstrating some flexibility. Though the Obama administration has long said that Mr. Assad must go in order for there to be a durable solution to the Syria crisis, Mr. Kerry allowed for the possibility that Mr. Assad might remain in power in the short term.
“Our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad,” Mr. Kerry said at the start of a meeting here with Abdullah bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister. “But we’re looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground.”
Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary whom Mr. Kerry is scheduled to meet on Saturday, made a similar point earlier this month.
“We are not saying Assad and all his cronies have to go on day one,” Mr. Hammond told a parliamentary committee. “If there was a process that was agreed, including with the Russians and the Iranians, which took a period of months and there was a transition out during that period of months, we could certainly discuss that.”
The Russian aircraft that arrived in Syria this week followed the deployment of modern T-90 tanks, howitzers, and armored personnel carriers. More than 200 Russian marines have been sent to the air base, and temporary housing has been built for as many as 1,500 personnel.
Mr. Carter’s call to Mr. Shoigu was his first conversation with his Russian counterpart since he took office seven months ago. The two men agreed to continue discussions on “mechanisms for deconfliction” in Syria, Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. Mr. Shoigu told Mr. Carter that the Russian military buildup in Syria was defensive in nature, Pentagon officials said.
The prospect that military talks could lead to a broader agreement, however, seemed distant to some former administration officials.
“With respect to getting the Russians to be a useful partner in a political settlement, we’ve tried that twice under better circumstances and failed,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former Obama adviser and ambassador to Russia.
Moreover, experts said both sides were approaching the issue from weakened positions that could complicate a common diplomatic strategy. “The positions of both Moscow and Washington’s proxies are worsening,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The Russians are going into Syria because the regime’s position in the north is deteriorating,” he noted. “The Pentagon has been unable to recruit and train a viable opposition to fight the Islamic State because the rebels’ main interest is in fighting Mr. Assad. Given divisions between Moscow and Washington, it’s hard to see how you turn convergence on tactical military issues into a collective and viable political strategy to stabilize Syria and end the war.”
But that appears to be precisely Mr. Kerry’s goal. “They allege that they also share the goal of a political transition that leads to a stable, whole, united, secular Syria,” Mr. Kerry said of the Russians on Britain’s Channel 4. “The question always remains, Where is Assad’s place and role within that? And that’s what we need to have more conversation on.”