US, Russia consult on Syria; Moscow reportedly sends jets to war zone

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The US and Russian defence chiefs spoke by phone Friday about Syria as Russian military activity in the country heightened concern about Moscow’s intentions.

The Pentagon said Defence Secretary Ash Carter had a “constructive” phone call with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu on the situation in Syria. It was the first call between the two defence chiefs this year.

But the reported arrival of four Russian fighter jets at a base in Syria added to US concerns about Russia’s military support of the Syrian regime.

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

They agreed to further talks on the campaign against Islamic State and ways to ease the conflict in Syria.

The Pentagon said earlier this week it has been monitoring a Russian military buildup at an airport near the major Syrian port city of Latakia. Equipment that arrived earlier inludes attack helicopters, artillery and housing for up to 2,000 people.

The arrival of the jets a few hours before Carter and Shoygu’s 50-minute call was reported by the Wall Street Journal and CNN. The Pentagon had no comment on the reports, which said the jets’ arrival raised new concerns that Moscow is preparing to play a direct role in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad counter Islamic State militants.

Last week Moscow said it had been openly sending military equipment to the Syrian government to fight terrorism, specifically the Islamic State, which has gained significant territory since early 2014 in war-torn Syria and Iraq.

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.

Russia, a staunch ally of Assad, said Friday it was ready to consider sending troops to Syria if Damascus asks.

The situation is made more complex by military operations against Islamic State inside Syria by a US-led coalition.

Earlier Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said US and Russian officials could meet soon to hold a “military-to-military conversation” on Syria.

Speaking in London, Kerry said Moscow and Washington were “looking for ways in which to find a common ground.”

President Barack Obama considers the US-Russian military conversation on Syria “an important next step,” Kerry said, adding that talks “hopefully will take place very shortly.”

The United States has said it wants military contact with Russia to run parallel with diplomatic talks that would achieve a political transition in Syria.

Also in London, Kerry met Friday with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed. The two diplomats stressed the need for a political solution to the Syrian conflict and for “continued international focus on humanitarian and refugee assistance,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.

Kerry is scheduled to leave Sunday from London for talks in Berlin with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“We’re trying to get more clarity on what Russia’s intentions are, what they intend to do,” Toner said. “And, through this, we’re going to make clear our opposition to any idea or any effort to prop up Assad’s regime, because we believe that’s actually counterproductive to any peace process.”

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

The United Nations estimates that 250,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. More than half the country’s prewar population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.

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