Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images

US agrees to military talks as ‘next step’ with Russia on Syria

Analysis: Shift in tone could signal that ISIL has pushed Washington toward compromise with Moscow

The White House signaled its support for direct military talks with Russia over the crisis in Syria on Friday, saying it hoped the two could find “common ground” against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) despite fresh reports that Russia had sent fighter planes to Syria to bolster the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“The president believes that a mil-to-mil conversation is an important next step,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, speaking at a meeting in London, “and I think, hopefully, will take place very shortly.”

Kerry’s comment marked a sudden shift in tone for the Obama administration, which has repeatedly admonished Moscow in the past few weeks over reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had deployed Russian troops and heavy weapons — including T-90 tanks and armored personnel carriers — to an air base in Latakia, Syria. Kerry has previously warned the Kremlin that its military build-up on behalf of Assad, who the U.S. opposes, “could further escalate the conflict,” and runs the risk of direct confrontation with U.S. drones and fighter jets currently striking ISIL positions in northern Syria.

Also Friday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, for the first time since Carter assumed his position in February. The thrust of their phone call was “mechanisms for deconfliction” in Syria, the Pentagon said in a statement, suggesting a newfound willingness on Washington’s part to engage directly with Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Russian military buildup continued Friday. A senior defense official told Al Jazeera that four Russian SU-27 Flanker fighter planes and another four helicopters arrived at the base, which is situated not far from Russia’s only military base outside the post-Soviet arena, in the port city of Tartus. A Kremlin spokesman also said Russia would consider sending combat troops to Syria if Assad requested.

In the face of this escalation, however, Kerry said Washington’s 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.” He added, “We’re looking for ways in which to find a common ground.”

Russia’s build-up is meant to broadcast its unwavering commitment to Assad — who it has armed and backed throughout the four-year uprising — at a moment when regime forces are on their back feet in several key battlegrounds. Putin is expected to call for a revival of Syria’s long-stalemated peace process during his speech before the United Nations General Assembly later this month, prompting speculation that his moves in Syria are aimed at strengthening his and Assad’s bargaining position ahead of talks.

In that narrative frame, many analysts saw the White House’s consent on Friday as a small victory for Putin’s gambit. The U.S. strategy in Syria, which was initially aimed at bolstering “moderate” rebel factions against Assad, has been derailed by the rise of a greater threat — ISIL. The rebel factions that the U.S. backs continue to demand Assad’s departure as a precondition of peace talks, but most analysts believe the U.S. is increasingly fearful that his removal would only serve to widen the power vacuum that has allowed groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda to metastasize.

Many in Russian political circles say they see through Washington's increasingly tepid rhetoric that Assad must go. “This is something we share now with the U.S. government: They don’t want the Assad government to fall,” the Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, told The New York Times this week. “They want to fight ISIL in a way that won’t harm the Syrian government. On the other hand, they don’t want the Syrian government to take advantage of their campaign against ISIL.”

Despite the past year of sky-high tensions between the U.S. and Russia, punctuated by the Cold War–like conflict over Ukraine, analysts say the ISIL dilemma has thrust the Obama administration towards some points of alignment with Moscow and Assad’s other main, backer, Iran.

“Everyone agrees that [ISIL] must be defeated, even though they disagree on how to do it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The Obama administration is unlikely to fall for the Putin plan of a grand coalition with Moscow, Tehran and Damascus to accomplish that, but a degree of coordination is advisable.”

“The Kremlin,” Trenin added, “likely believes that its firm stance would make the White House accept Russia as a player and negotiate with it on the following: deconflicting of their parallel engagements or even on a division of labor as both countries execute their strategies in Syria; a broad anti-[ISIL] coalition, which Putin has proposed; and eventually the future of postwar Syria.”

That prospect remains far off, however, and in the meantime the Russian military buildup is already spurring talk that Moscow is further entangling itself in another foreign military intervention it can ill-afford. In additional to the geopolitical opprobrium it has faced from the West, Russia’s economy is taking a hit from sinking oil prices and Western sanctions levied over Ukraine.

Analysts say the ghosts of Afghanistan, an intervention that contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union, loom large for any Russian military intervention in the Middle East. But Russia watchers also say Putin’s efforts to defend one of the last Russian footholds in the Middle East — Syria — could also play well at home, where his approval ratings have skyrocketed since Ukraine. At the very least, escalation in Syria could distract from the continuing Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine, just as the world's leaders prepare to convene at the UN.

For now, at least, the Kremlin is “probably calculating that the risks in Syria are manageable,” Trenin added. “Russia is sending advisers and technicians, crews to operate weapons systems, some support personnel and it may send pilots, but not combat troops: The pro-Assad fighters on the battlefield will continue to be Syrians, Iranians or Hezbollah.”

Jamie McIntyre contributed reporting

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