UNITED NATIONS — Blindsided by the unexpected swiftness of Russia’s air attacks in Syria, the Obama administration scrambled Wednesday to retake the diplomatic and military initiatives, saying that it would not be bullied into supporting President Bashar al-Assad and that it was about to significantly expand its own Syrian air operations.
After spending much of the day together here behind closed doors, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, said in terse evening statements that U.S. and Russian military officials would meet, perhaps as soon as Thursday, to “deconflict” their operations in Syria.
Standing side by side outside the U.N. Security Council chamber, they said they had reached some preliminary agreements on a way forward toward a negotiated political solution to Syria’s civil war but indicated they were far from agreed on its outcome. They took no questions.
“We have a lot of work to do, understanding fully how urgent this is,” Kerry said.
Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off Western concerns, suggesting that other countries “get involved” in Syria under Russia’s leadership. Senior foreign policy spokesmen in Moscow said the action proved Russia was a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
Administration officials countered that the airstrikes showed only Russian weakness and what White House press secretary Josh Earnest said was growing concern “about losing influence in the one client state they have in the Middle East.”
Beyond debates about motives and the meaning of the strikes, conducted as world leaders are gathered here this week for the U.N. General Assembly, Kerry worked to marshal a common front among leading members of the U.S.-led coalition. The surprise of European leaders at the timing of the Russian actions — before promised military talks with the United States and with only an hour’s notice — appeared to have trumped any lingering doubts about U.S. strategy.
Within an hour of the first confirmed reports of the Russian airstrikes, the Security Council convened a previously scheduled meeting on counterterrorism chaired by Lavrov, who said his country was “ready to forge strong channels of communication” with the United States.
European allies echoed Kerry’s insistence that “the answer cannot be found in [the] military alliance with Assad” that Russia has proposed as needed to combat the greater evil of the Islamic State.
Instead, they redoubled their commitment to the coalition and to rejecting any role in Syria for Assad, whose brutal suppression of political opponents was, they agreed, responsible for the rise of militancy in the first place and whose attacks on his own people could not be forgiven or forgotten.
“Their hangman cannot be part of their future,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking at the council meeting, said of anti-Assad forces on the ground.
The council session was reminiscent in sentiment, if not in volume and bombast, of the Cold War debates held in the same chamber decades ago. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, clearly emboldened by Russia’s moves, called Fabius’s words “inept” and suggested that France was responsible for the spread of terrorism.
If there was any silver lining to be found, it appeared as a coalition resolve, perhaps buttressed by concern at the growing flood of Syrian refugees into Europe, to press for political negotiations so that attention could be more fully turned toward the Islamic State. The international community has failed for more than three years to organize a Syrian political coalition to replace Assad and end his civil war against an assortment of secular, religious, extremist and moderate fighting groups.
It is into that void that the Islamic State jumped, quickly capturing much of eastern and northern Syria while Assad and his opponents have fought it out in the west, and using Syria as a base from which to move into neighboring Iraq.
The Kremlin has every reason to be concerned about the rise of the militants, many of whom are drawn from the Caucasus in Russia and the former Soviet states of Central Asia and are likely to return there. Putin also shares U.S., European and regional concern that the swift demise of the Syrian state, and its security institutions, would leave a free path to even more power for the Islamic State.
But much of the controversy being played out on the ground is aimed at winning leverage in any future negotiations. The West, along with the Syrian groups it supports, backs a 2012 plan to form a transition government, with representatives of the Syrian military and other institutions, and then hold elections in which Assad would not be allowed to participate. Russia, which intends to keep Syria as a client state, says it agrees with the plan but wants Assad to stay — by acclaim or as the electoral victor.
Kerry suggested in the council session that policy discussions underway in Washington would soon bring sharply increased U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State, which he emphasized had continued even as the Russians launched their own attacks in a different part of the country.
Administration officials insisted they were not opposed in principle to the Russian strikes and repeated an invitation to join the U.S.-led coalition that was issued by President Obama during a meeting with Putin here Monday.
Instead, the Russians appeared to have done just what the administration had warned against — striking assorted opposition forces fighting against Assad, rather than targeting the Islamic State, which Russia says it agrees must be eliminated. As a result, Kerry and others said, the civil war would be prolonged.
“What’s clear is that this is about defeating opposition forces encroaching on Assad’s positions along the [western] coast,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The sophistication of the fighter jets they are sending suggests a very determined effort to protect Assad.”
Putin and the Obama administration both referred to the quagmire in Iraq that the United States found itself in a decade ago, after it disbanded the Iraqi army and then faced rising extremism, but they drew different lessons from it.
While the administration says that Assad’s continued presence would prevent any negotiated settlement, Putin has argued that any attempt to get rid of Assad would mean structural collapse in Syria, and he has now shown he is ready to put muscle behind his views.
“Putin is making the point that he’s not just a regional player that we can discount and discredit,” said Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former foreign policy adviser to Vice President Biden. “He’s clearly trying to make clear that he’s someone who needs to be at the table on Syria.”
Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.