LONDON — Defense chiefs from the United States and Russia held their first direct talks in more than a year Friday, reflecting Washington’s mounting alarm about Russian military escalation in Syria and how it might affect the fight against the Islamic State.
The 50-minute phone call between Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu caps weeks of concern about Moscow’s moves to make its military support to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad more effective.
The talks took place as the first Russian fighter jets appeared at a military base on Syria’s coast, adding to a growing arsenal of artillery and tanks as well as military personnel that Moscow has provided in recent weeks to its key ally on the Mediterranean.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said military talks with Russia would “help to define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.”
“Obviously, our focus remains on destroying ISIL,” Kerry told reporters during a visit to London, “and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad. We are looking for ways in which to try and find a common ground.” ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.
The military buildup by Russia, already at odds with Washington over the war in Ukraine, adds a new layer of complexity to the crisis in Syria, a foreign policy challenge President Obama has struggled to address for more than four years. It comes as Europe is confronting a massive wave of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict.
In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Carter and Shoigu agreed to discuss means for ensuring that the two countries’ military activities in Syria don’t come into conflict — an especially important goal as the United States continues a year-old air campaign against Islamic State militants there.
The conversation marked the first time Carter has spoken with Shoigu since the U.S. defense chief took office in February, and it was the first call between any U.S. defense secretary and the Russian minister since August 2014. It comes 18 months after the United States halted military engagement with Russia, including exercises and bilateral meetings, because of Moscow’s activities in Ukraine.
It’s still unclear whether the two countries could engage in any direct military cooperation against the Islamic State.
“We have two big jobs in Syria: One is to broker a diplomatic settlement, and the other is to defeat the Islamic State,” said Julianne Smith, a former White House official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Both of those take us to Russia.”
“The administration has no choice but to engage with the Russians at this point, however unsavory that might feel,” she added.
But the unusual talks probably do not indicate a near-term shift in the administration’s stance on the other issues that have pitted it against Moscow: the war in Ukraine and the future of the Assad regime, increasingly under pressure from a variety of armed opponents.
While Russia says that escalation of its longtime military support aims to help the Syrian army battle the Islamic State, administration officials fear that the recent deployment of Russian troops and hardware is meant to bolster Assad’s fragile position.
“If they’re serious about really wanting to fight ISIS, and they want to work with us on a political solution, there’s a way to parlay this that could be constructive. If they’re coming in to do the regime’s bidding . . . that’s not going to be good,” said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive bilateral issues. “The jury is still out.”
In Moscow, Russian officials raised the prospect of sending troops into combat in Syria if Assad wants them.
“If there is a request, it will be discussed as part of bilateral contacts,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday. “Of course it will be discussed and considered.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Thursday that “there’s no joint fight on the ground with Russian forces, but if we sense the need for it, we will consider and ask,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Syria’s civil war threatens Moscow’s foreign policy interests, notably the future of a Russian naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. It also poses domestic concerns.
In an interview with Britain’s Channel 4, Kerry said the Russians are increasingly concerned about the rising number of fighters from their region in combat alongside the Islamic State in Syria — 2,000 from Chechnya alone.
He said the U.S.-Russian dialogue so far has been about de-confliction, a term that refers to making sure U.S. and Russian military efforts don’t interfere with each other. But he held out the possibility that it could expand.
“It is possible now that there may yet be a meeting or some other follow-up on it,” Kerry said. “We will stay very closely in communication, because that’s very important. We share the same goal. We share the goal of ridding the region of ISIL.”
But Kerry also voiced wariness about Russia’s support for Assad.
“Well, they allege that they also share the goal of a political transition that leads to a stable, whole, united, secular Syria,” he said. “The question always remains: Where is Assad’s place and role within that, and that’s what we need to have more conversation on.”
On Friday, the Kremlin said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week in Moscow for talks that will cover the “Middle East peace process and war with the global terrorist threat.”
Putin has called for a coalition with the West to fight Middle Eastern terrorism, an initiative that analysts say could help improve Russia’s relations with the West, damaged by the crisis in Ukraine between Moscow-backed rebels and the Western-supported Kiev government.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Russia’s actions in Syria are “not just a token initiative.” A Russian intervention in the Syrian war could also lead to an accidental clash between Russia and the United States, he said, but the Russian government could treat even that as a chance to reopen dialogue with the West.
“Russia’s strategy is to bolster Bashar al-Assad’s army right now, to keep the strongholds that it has now, particularly Damascus,” he said.
“Failing that, Plan B is to help the Alawites hold the strongholds in western Syria. That’s where the Russian military aid is coming. That’s where the Russian military presence is today and will be tomorrow,” he added, referring to Assad’s minority sect.
Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based political analyst, said that Russia would face daunting logistical hurdles to bring a large ground force to Syria but that Russia could deploy warplanes. Whether Putin would make further moves into Syria would depend heavily on the result of talks with the United States, he said.
Kerry had lunch Friday with Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, a co-founder of the center-left Zionist Union and Netanyahu’s chief political rival.
According to a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s ground rules, the two men discussed the need to work toward a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. With the Iran nuclear agreement now secured, Kerry has said he wants to see whether it is possible to revive peace talks.
Ryan reported from Washington. Andrew Roth in Moscow and Thomas Gibbons-Neff and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.