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.
The Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter had spoken by telephone on Friday with Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian minister of defense. It was Mr. Carter’s first discussion 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.
Russia has been stepping up its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in recent weeks. It has developed an air base near Latakia, and has deployed combat aircraft there in recent days, including four Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighter jets, four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships, a senior United States official in Washington said.
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.
Another American official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the fighter jets had been sighted at the base.
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. Two hundred Russian marines have been sent to the base, and temporary housing has been built for as many as 1,500 personnel.
Mr. Cook described the discussion between Mr. Carter and Mr. Shoigu as “constructive,” and said the two men had “talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap, and areas of divergence.” Mr. Shoigu told Mr. Carter that the Russian military buildup in Syria was defensive in nature, Pentagon officials said.
The initial purpose of the talks with Russia, Secretary of State John 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.”
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SOURCE: NY Times, Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt