US, Russia to begin talks on military activity in Syria

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The US and Russian militaries will hold talks on their activities against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter has directed his staff to “open lines of communication with Russia on de-confliction,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

Carter’s order made it clear that the two nations have common ground when it comes to fighting Islamic State, and the goal should be to take the fight to Islamic State and not to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Another purpose of the talks will be to ensure Russian military activity in Syria does not interrupt operations by US-led coalition forces against Islamic State, Cook said.

The Pentagon wants to ensure the safety of coalition aircrews. The US began strikes against Islamic State fighters in August 2014 in Iraq and expanded air raids one month later to include Islamic State outposts.

Details and timing of the conversations will be worked out in the coming days, Cook said.

A suspension in the US-Russia military relationship over the Ukraine conflict remains in place.

The announcement comes after US President Barack Obama’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The US and Russian defence chiefs spoke by phone 10 days ago as Moscow’s military activity in Syria heightened concern about Putin’s intentions. The call between Carter and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu, which was described as “constructive,” followed the arrival of four Russian SU-34 Fullback fighters at the air base in Latakia, Syria.

Putin on Sunday condemned US support for rebel groups in Syria while defending his backing of al-Assad in the multi-sided civil war. The US has described Russia’s support for al-Assad as a mistake and insisted that he cannot be part of a diplomatic solution ending the war.

Earlier Tuesday, a group that monitors the Syrian conflict said the death toll from Syrian regime strikes on a market in the eastern city of al-Mayadin had reached 30, including eight children.

“The number of dead is expected to rise as many people are still missing and several of the wounded are suffering from serious injuries,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The observatory said Monday that 50 people had been wounded in the strikes in the city, which is held by the Islamic State militant group.

Islamic State controls most of eastern Syria, though government forces are holding out in parts of the nearby provincial capital, Deir al-Zour.

This month, the jihadists gained ground in their push against Syrian troops holding Deir al-Zour’s military airport, the city’s only remaining supply route.

Battles between government forces and Islamic State have intensified this year as the jihadists advanced through Syria’s central desert toward al-Assad strongholds.

Previously, both sides had focussed on battling rebel forces for territory.

The battle against Islamic State has become a key focus of international diplomacy over the Syrian war, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US leader Barak Obama trading barbs on the issue Monday at the United Nations.

Putin has justified Russia’s growing military presence in Syria on the grounds that only the government of al-Assad is capable of defeating the jihadists.

Obama slammed al-Assad’s rights abuses, but a US attempt to establish a Syrian rebel force to take on Islamic State has all but collapsed.

The conflict, which started with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011, has turned into a four-way civil war between the government, a wide range of mainly Islamist rebels, the Islamic State organization and Kurdish forces.

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