U.S. and Russian defense officials held an hour-long video conference Thursday, the first direct communication between them since Russia began airstrikes in Syria against what it says are the Islamic State and “other terrorist groups.”
But beyond what a Pentagon spokesman called a “cordial and professional exchange” designed to avoid accidents in Syrian airspace, there was little agreement over the nature of Russian targets, Russia’s overall intentions in Syria or a future political settlement there.
The two sides conferred over radio frequencies and the language pilots should use to communicate with one another, and said they were likely to speak again. The Defense Department said that while crews are prepared to deal with possible conflicts in the air, there was little chance so far of aircraft colliding.
“It’s important to remember” that there are “a lot of square miles in Syria,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said. Two days of Russian strikes have hit targets in western Syria, while the Americans and coalition partners largely operate in the north and east.
Whatever de-confliction took place on the military side did not extend to the ongoing diplomatic jousting between the two countries. Some of the most pointed verbal thrusts came from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who accused the United States of hypocrisy, of repeated violations of international law and of trying to bring democracy to the world by simply getting rid of leaders it disliked.
“Saddam Hussein, hanged. Is Iraq a better place, a safer place?” Lavrov asked at a U.N. news conference. “Gaddafi, murdered. . . . Is Libya a better place? Now we’re demonizing Assad,” he said of Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Responding to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s charge that the Russian attacks were pouring gasoline on the Syria conflagration, Lavrov retorted that “we know about many fires ‘gasolined’ by the Pentagon in the region.”
“Yes, there must be political change in Syria, no doubt about it,” Lavrov said. But the first priority, he said, must be the Islamic State.
Asked why Russian strikes appeared not to be aimed at the Islamic State but at groups fighting against Assad, Lavrov insisted that “we were always saying we are going to fight ISIL and other terrorist groups.” ISIL is an acronym for the Islamic State.
In particular, he mentioned Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate whose forces are in close proximity to U.S.-backed Syrian opposition fighters combating Assad’s military in western Syria. The U.S. military has, in the past, also targeted Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.
“Representatives of the coalition command have always been saying their targets are ISIL, al-Nusra and other terrorist groups,” Lavrov said. “This is our position as well. We see eye to eye [with] the coalition. . . . We have the same approach.”
The Obama administration did not confirm numerous reports from the ground of strikes against specific U.S.-backed groups, but called the Russian actions “indiscriminate . . . attacks against the Syrian opposition” designed to aid Assad.
“The danger associated with that kind of indiscriminate military action,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, “is that it distracts from the organizations that should be the focal point of these kinds of activities, mainly ISIL, and serves to drive away the kind of moderate opposition that ultimately the international community, including Russia, is going to be counting on to be a part of the political transition that’s long overdue inside of Syria.”
“The effect of these kinds of indiscriminate airstrikes essentially drives what would otherwise be moderate elements of the Sunni opposition to Assad into the arms of extremists,” Earnest said.
Far from joining the fight against the Islamic State, he said, Russia knows that its influence in the Middle East is waning and is trying to preserve its Syrian client, Assad, along with its last military base in the region.
“Russia is responding to that urgent situation, trying to shore up their investment” and “to salvage what’s left of a deteriorating situation inside of Syria,” Earnest said.
In conversations last week as Russia’s military buildup in Syria continued, but before its airstrikes began Wednesday, administration officials acknowledged that Russian targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra and other non-Islamic State extremist groups would pose a potential problem for the United States.
To the extent that moderate opposition groups are also hit, the administration will have to decide whether it has an obligation to protect them. Repeatedly pressed on the issue Thursday, Carter’s spokesman Peter Cook declined to answer, saying that the Pentagon’s main concern was that the Russians “are not striking targets in areas that are controlled by ISIL.”
As the White House and the Pentagon continued to deal with immediate questions surrounding Russia’s military activities, Secretary of State John F. Kerry met again Thursday with coalition partners on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York.
European and Arab partners in the coalition are trying to translate rising tensions in the region, as well as in a Europe flooded with Syrian refugees, into a greater push for a negotiated political settlement.
The most immediate question is whether serious talks among the warring parties in Syria — not including the Islamic State — can begin before the question of Assad is resolved.
Most discussions center on an agreement by the opposition and the government in Geneva in 2012 to establish a transition body, comprised of “mutually acceptable” representatives of both, to govern until elections could be held. The document did not mention Assad.
“Everything is possible” under the Geneva agreement, Lavrov said at his news conference. Once a deal is reached that takes all Syrian interests into account, he said, “the problems of one or another personality would be much easier to be resolved.”
Earnest, speaking at the White House, strongly disagreed. “When it comes to Assad,” he said, “the things that Assad has done inside of Syria — perpetrating terrible acts of violence against innocent civilians — have caused him to lose legitimacy to lead that country.”
“Depending on how you draw the lines, probably 80 percent of the Syrian population no longer views him as a legitimate leader of Syria,” Earnest said. “This is the inherent tension in the case that the Russians continue to make. They say, ‘Well, we need to have a political solution inside of Syria, and that’s why we’re supporting Assad.’ ”
“It is not possible to have a political transition . . . that results in Assad continuing to lead the country,” he said.