The United States and Russia agreed Friday to consider potential areas of military cooperation in civil war-wracked Syria as a powerful al Qaida-allied rebel group vowed to “defeat” the expanding Russian military force that’s being deployed in northwestern Syria.
The agreement to hold military-to-military talks in parallel with diplomatic consultations was reached in a telephone conversation between Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoygu, the first time they’ve spoken since Carter took his post seven months ago, a Pentagon statement said.
“The secretary and the minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap and areas of divergence,” the statement said, adding that further talks on possible coordination would be held.
The discussions herald a significant shift in great power involvement in the four-year-old Syrian conflict and are the result of the new influence attained by Russian President Vladimir Putin through the buildup of Russian aircraft, tanks, artillery and troops near the Syrian port city of Latakia.
The buildup is Moscow’s first major military operation outside of the former Soviet Union since the 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan. As such, it represents a dangerous gamble for Putin because his intervention to bolster embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad offers a powerful incentive to Syrian rebel groups to collaborate in attacking the growing Russian military presence.
“A challenge for Russia is (that) maintaining a presence on the ground may require a robust force that could come in direct combat with various forces in the region,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Stephen Blank, a former Russian expert with the Army War College who is now with the American Foreign Policy Council, a policy institute, said that the longer the Russian force is on the ground, the greater the chance that Syria “could become a quagmire” for Putin.
“The Russians think they can keep their intervention limited, but I doubt it the longer it goes on,” said Blank.
His warning was reinforced by a vow by the new head of Ahrar al Sham, the largest of the Sunni Muslim groups fighting to topple Assad, to target the Russian troops.
“We owe it to you to restore freedom to Syria after the invasion of the rejectionists from all corners of the Earth,” said Abu Yahya al Hamwi in a speech recorded on a video delivered to supporters somewhere in Turkey and posted on the Internet. “Today they are bolstered by their allies, the Russians, and the fate of this invasion shall be defeated.”
“Rejectionists” is a derogatory term that Sunni extremists use for Shiite Muslims. In citing it, Hamwi was referring to military advisers from Shiite-dominated Iran and Shiites from Afghanistan and Pakistan fighting on behalf of Assad, who is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot that dominates the Syrian regime.
Ahrar al Sham, estimated to have 35,000 fighters, is the largest component of the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that recently cooperated with al Qaida’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, in conquering northern Idlib province, raising the possibility that they could launch joint operations against the Russians.
Russia has long supported Assad with military advisers and weaponry. But the Russian buildup at an airfield near Assad’s stronghold of Latakia is a huge escalation in the effort to prop up the Syrian leader, who’s suffered a string of losses and manpower shortages in fighting that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and uprooted half the population of 23 million.
The Russian deployment showed no sign of slowing, with Moscow saying that it is ready to consider sending combat troops if Damascus asks for them.
In Washington, a U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue, said that four Sukhoi 27 fighters, codenamed Flankers by NATO, were spotted being delivered to the Russian base at Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia province. Four new helicopters also arrived, he said.
The twin-engine Su-27s, which was designed as a front-line fighter and can be used to support ground forces, and the new helicopters added to a force at the base that already included four helicopters, six tanks, three dozen armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces. U.S. officials say Russia has erected prefabricated housing for 1,500 personnel at the base. A 200-strong marine force is guarding the facility.
The 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. We would expect Russia to send force protective means, including a small presence of ground forces, to support these operations.”
Russia said that it aims to fight the Islamic State, the savage extremist movement that has declared a caliphate on large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq that it has seized since last year.
But the Russians could strike other rebel groups to stabilize Assad, sparking concern within the Obama administration, which has called on the Syrian leader to step aside as part of any political settlement.
Moreover, U.S. officials are worried about accidental entanglements between Russian aircraft and aircraft of a U.S.-led coalition that has been launching airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
In their talk, the Pentagon statement said, Carter and Shoygu agreed to hold further discussions on setting up a mechanism for “deconfliction,” or ensuring that Russian and U.S. commanders are aware of each other’s military operations and movements so they can avoid accidents or misunderstandings.
Moreover, the pair will hold further talks on the campaign against the Islamic State, the statement said.
The Obama administration has said it would welcome Russia’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 nations that has been striking the Islamic State from the air in Syria and training, arming and advising Iraqi security forces battling the extremists in Iraq.
“We have hinted for a couple of days now that we believed there would be some value in some tactical, practical discussions with the Russians about how to advance the goals of our counter-ISIL operation, and to ensure the same conduct of those anti-ISIL operations,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
Putin, however, has spoken about forging an alliance that also would include Syria and Iran, a proposal he is expected to detail when he attends the Sept. 28 opening of the U.N. General Assembly, a plan that would be politically all but impossible for the White House to accept.
The question of Assad’s future has also divided Putin and President Barack Obama, who has long said that the Syrian leader must step aside as part of any political settlement and that Russia’s effort to bolster him would prolong the war.
Secretary of State John Kerry held out the possibility on Friday that Assad might play a short-term role in a political transition, a position that Britain, the United States’ closest ally, recently adopted.
“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,” Kerry said during a visit to London. “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.”