September 18, 2015


[The initial purpose of the talks with Russia, Mr. Kerry said in London, will be to help “define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.”]

By Michael R. Gordon
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in London on Friday. 
Credit Pool photo by Evan Vucci
LONDON Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that the United States was prepared to engage in military-to-military talks with Russia concerning Syria.

“The president believes that a mil-to-mil conversation is an important next step,” Mr. Kerry said, “and I think, hopefully, will take place very shortly.”

Shortly after Mr. Kerry spoke, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter had spoken by telephone with Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian minister of defense. It was Mr. Carter’s first discussion with his Russian counterpart since he became defense secretary 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. Cook described the discussion as “constructive” and said the two men had “talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap, and areas of divergence.”

The initial purpose of the talks with Russia, Mr. Kerry said in London, will be to help “define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.”

Mr. Kerry said that the Obama administration would not change its basic goals in Syria: the defeat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and a political solution for the conflict there.

But though the administration has long said that President Bashar al-Assad must go for there to be a durable solution to the Syria crisis, Mr. Kerry seemed on Friday to allow for the possibility that Mr. Assad might remain in power in the short term. Mr. Assad has had Russia’s backing throughout the conflict.

“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. “But we’re looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground. Clearly, if you’re going to have a political settlement, which we’ve always argued is the best and only way to resolve Syria, you need to have conversations with people, and you need to find a common ground.”

Mr. Kerry made his remarks in London at the start of a meeting with Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates. Mr. Kerry also plans to meet on Saturday with the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, and then will travel to Germany on Sunday for discussions focused mainly on the Syria crisis and the refugee situation in Europe.

Russia has been stepping up its support for Mr. Assad in recent weeks, including deployment of weapons and personnel to an airfield near Latakia, Syria. With Mr. Kerry’s comments on Friday, the Obama administration’s position on the Russian steps has shifted, from objecting vociferously to trying to manage events.

On Sept. 5, Mr. Kerry warned Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, that the Kremlin should not expand its military support for the Syrian government. The Russian buildup, Mr. Kerry said in a telephone conversation with Mr. Lavrov, “could further escalate the conflict” and might even “risk confrontation” with the American-led coalition that is conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, according to a State Department account of the call.

The United States also sought to impede the Russian buildup. Bulgaria closed its airspace to Russian transport planes at the request of the United States. Iraq, however, did not take any action, which has allowed the Russians to keep delivering weapons and equipment to Syria.

Russia made the next diplomatic move. Seeking to rebut Mr. Kerry’s assertion that the Russian deployment could fuel the Syrian conflict, Mr. Lavrov said last week that the Russian military was prepared to coordinate with the Pentagon to avoid “unintended incidents.” He repeated the offer for military-to-military talks in a telephone conversation with Mr. Kerry on Tuesday.

In Moscow, the foreign ministry said it had always welcomed discussions with Washington about Syria. “We have never refused dialogue with the U.S., and we remain open to one now on all issues of mutual interest, including Syria,” Maria Zakharova, the ministry spokeswoman, told the state-run RIA Novosti agency.

A spokesman for the Russian defense ministry, Igor Konashenkov, confirmed the conversation between Mr. Carter and Mr. Shoigu, and said it signaled the resumption of military-to-military contacts that were broken off when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014.

Russia has continued its buildup in Syria. Two large Hip troop-transport helicopters and two Hind helicopter gunships have been sent to the airfield in recent days, a senior United States official in Washington said on Wednesday. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports, said that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had landed and delivered matériel at the air base in the past 10 days.

Russia has also deployed modern T-90 tanks, howitzers, and armored personnel carriers at the airfield, weapons that appear intended to defend the base rather than engage in large-scale ground combat. Russia has also sent 200 marines to the airfield, and temporary housing there for many as 1,500 personnel.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, denied in an interview on Syrian state television Friday that any Russian troops in Syria were involved in combat, but he held out the possibility that his government might ask the Russians for such help in the future. He maintained that the Syrian Army was capable of defending the country, though he said that Russia had “stepped up the pace” of deliveries of weapons and ammunition that the army needs.

Asked about Mr. Moallem’s remarks, Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, told reporters in Moscow that if the Syrian government asked Russia to send combat troops, the request would be “discussed and considered.”

In the meantime, some experts said military-to-military talks between Washington and Moscow could be useful in minimizing the risk of inadvertent confrontations in Syria between the Russian forces there and the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. But some observers also expressed skepticism that such discussions could evolve into more far-reaching cooperation to end the conflict.

“Given coalition operations in Syria, deconfliction is necessary,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But the fact is, the positions of both Moscow and Washington’s proxies are worsening. The Russians are going into Syria because the regime’s position in the north is deteriorating, not improving.”

Washington is unable to recruit and train a viable opposition to fight the Islamic State because it has been unwilling to commit to a military strategy that would combat ISIS and also remove Assad from power,” Mr. Tabler added. “Given the chasm between Moscow and Washington on the viability of Assad’s dwindling forces and rigid political positions, 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.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow.