US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that the US and Russia are preparing to open military-to-military dialogue "very shortly" in the hope of finding a solution to the worsening crisis in Syria.
Saying that US President Barack Obama believes talks with Russia are "an important step," Kerry told reporters on Friday that the Pentagon would participate in discussions with Russia, but stopped short of elaborating exactly where, when and at what level talks will be held.
However, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said later on Friday that US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu had agreed to “further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria” in their first telephone conversation since August 2014.
The Pentagon said Carter and Shoigu also agreed that talks will focus on the campaign to counter the ISIS militant group, which took advantage of the power vacuum resulting from the four-and-a-half-year-old Syrian civil war to take over swathes of land, setting up the de facto capital of their self-proclaimed state in the city of Raqqa.
According to the Pentagon’s statement, Carter and Shoigu will further discuss ways to avoid American and Russian troops operating in Syria clashing with each other while fighting ISIS militants separately.
Future consultations between two defence chiefs would run parallel "with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria," Carter told Shoigu.
"He noted that defeating [ISIS militants] and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time," the Pentagon spokesman added.
The 50-minute conversation was “constructive,” the spokesman said, adding that the discussion concentrated on areas where "perspectives overlap and areas of divergence."
Speaking to the Reuters news agency, a senior US defense official said Shoigu reassured Carter that the Russian military build-up in Syria was merely defensive and were designed to “honour commitments” made to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
The initiation of talks comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week called on Moscow and Washington to revive communications between military commanders in order to avoid "unintended incidents" in Syria.
Russia has been pushing to form a new international coalition to fight ISIS, which would include Assad, in what it called a “healthy opposition.”
However, the US does not see the need for a new coalition when there’s already an existing one active in the region and is adamant that a post-war Syria cannot include Assad.
War gone on ‘too long’
US Secretary of State Kerry, who is on an official visit to London, said the US and Russia were looking to find "common ground" on the Syrian crisis.
"Everybody is seized by the urgency. We have been all along but the migration levels and continued destruction, the danger of potential augmentation by any unilateral moves puts a high premium on diplomacy at this moment," Kerry said.
Kerry also reiterated his view in an interview with Channel 4 News that the Syrian Civil War has gone on “too long.”
"We therefore need to retool and calibrate and that is exactly what we're doing. It is one of the reasons why we're in Europe right now."
UN figures state that some 250,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war and an estimated 7.6 million people have been internally displaced, while another 5.4 million people have fled the country into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, as well as Europe.
Russian military build-up
Russia will send four tactical fighter jets to Syria in support of the Assad regime, an unnamed US officials told Reuters on Friday, amid increasing reports of a Russian military build-up in the country’s coastal Latakia governorate.
US estimates suggest helicopter gunships, artillery and up to 500 Russian naval infantry forces have additionally been sent to a Russian military base in Latakia, which is a stronghold for regime forces and Assad’s Alawite minority sect.
Although Russia has not acknowledged sending combat troops to aid the Assad regime, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said on Friday that Russia would consider sending troops if the regime requested.
Walid al-Moallem, Assad’s foreign minister, previously denied reports of Russia sending combat troops to Syria, but the regime would not hesitate to ask for such help if necessary.
"So far the Syrian army is able [on its own] and what we need frankly is more of the ammunition and quality weapons," al-Moallem said.
Meanwhile, a report published on Friday by Russian online newspaper gazeta.ru claimed that 20 combat troops from a military unit Russia's Eastern military district command were being sent on a mission to a "hot country," without officially being told the specific destination.
Some contract soldiers attempted to resign upon being informally told on Sept. 16 that this referred to them being stationed in Latakia the next day, but their resignations were rejected.
By then, the soldiers had already arrived at Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk in preparation to depart for their deployment. Due to protests, however, their deployment was delayed, the report stated.
"We don't want to go to Syria, we don't want to die there," one lieutenant is quoted saying by the report.