US and Russia to hold military talks on Syria, Kerry says


US and Russian officials could meet soon to hold a “military-to-military conversation” on Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday in London, as concerns mount over reports of Russia’s stepped-up presence in the war-torn country.

The two sides were “looking for ways in which to find a common ground,” Kerry said.

President Barack Obama hopes US and Russian officials will meet “very shortly,” Kerry was quoted by the BBC as saying after arriving in London, where he is to hold talks with his British counterpart Philip Hammond on Saturday.

The comments came as the Pentagon announced US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter had a “constructive” conversation with the Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoygu on the situation in Syria.

“The secretary and the minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap and areas of divergence,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Carter and Shoygu also agreed to further discuss the campaign against Islamic State and ways to ease the conflict in Syria.

The United States has said it wants these efforts to run parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria.

Russia, a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said said Friday it was ready to consider sending troops to Syria if Damascus asks.

“If there will be such a request within our bilateral dialogue, it will of course be discussed and considered,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Thursday his government would ask Russia to send troops to Syria “if necessary.”

Al-Moallem, speaking on Syrian state television, denied speculation that there are already Russian troops fighting alongside the Syrian army.

The US Pentagon says it has been monitoring a Russian military buildup at an airport near the major Syrian port city of Latakia.

In addition to Syria, Kerry and Hammond will also due to discuss the Middle East refugee crisis and other international issues.

The US chief diplomat is scheduled to leave Sunday for similar talks with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

US officials said Kerry also planned talks in London with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed to discuss “a variety of regional and bilateral issues.”

Concern in Washington over Russia’s involvement in Syria grew last week when Moscow said it had been openly sending military equipment to the Syrian government to fight terrorism, specifically the Islamic State terrorist group, which has gained significant territory in war-torn Syria and Iraq over the past year.

Moscow has shrugged off US concerns of Russian troops in the conflict, saying that “Russian military specialists” have been in Syria for many years to help with Russian-made equipment.

Al-Assad’s regime is battling a range of rebel forces, as well as the fundamentalist Islamic State, since mass protests against his rule devolved into violence in 2011.

A quarter of a million people have died in the conflict, according to estimates by the United Nations. More than half the country’s prewar population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.