U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu held talks on Syria. The Pentagon said the two discussed areas where U.S. and Russian "perspective overlap and areas of divergence."
Russia together with Iran have long been allies of the Assad government in Syria and have provided considerable material help. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has also aided the regime by supplying many fighters. The extent of Russian forces on the ground is not clear, although they no doubt have special forces and trainers to teach the Syrians how to use equipment. The Russians have long had a naval base in the port of Tartarus in Syria.Both the U.S. and Russians are anxious to prevent any possible conflict between U.S. and Russian forces. The U.S. and its allies have carried out an extensive bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria without ever seeking permission from the Syrian government to do so. Assad has tolerated these incursions. No doubt he could do little to prevent them and they help to defeat the Islamic State one of his many rebel enemies. At the same time, support for the Kurds by the U.S. helps a group which for tactical reasons has remained more or less neutral in attitude to the Assad government.The Kurds appear more concerned with solidifying their hold on territory they occupy rather than fighting Assad. Very early on in the civil war the Assad regime decided to leave the Kurds alone, providing they did not seize territory from Assad or attack regime forces. This Kurd policy is just one more conflict the Turks have with the Kurds and the U.S., who supports them. The Kurds are gaining territory as the IS loses ground, creating a larger Kurdish area that will demand more autonomy or even independence in any political settlement. The Turks have agreed to join the fight against the IS and allowed the U.S. to use an airbase in Turkey but most of Turkish bombing missions are against Kurdish PKK positions in Iraq.While the U.S. supports the Kurds against the IS in spite of their toleration of Assad, it draws the line at any coordination of its actions with Assad or to have the Russians also help out in the campaign. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said that in the talks, the U.S. was trying to find out the intentions of Russia in Syria as there are reports of a military build-up including the arrival of tactical fighter planes. Toner said:“We’ve been very clear we don’t accept Russia’s premise that somehow Assad can be a credible partner in fighting ISIL. We reject that.” No doubt the U.S. worries about alienating Syrian rebels, even more by not only helping Assad but clearly cooperating with him. As far as the fight against the Islamic State is concerned, the help of the Assad regime and Russia would no doubt aid in defeating the group. In spite of differences the U.S., Syria and Russia have cooperated in the past. The disposal of Assad's chemical weapons was a successful operation by all three.Carter emphasized that the military talks should go on with parallel diplomatic talks. The tasks of defeating the Islamic State and reaching a political solution should happen at the same time. One huge problem is that there is a disconnect with the transitional political groups set up by the west, many secular, and the mainly jihadist groups on the ground. The latter are not likely to pursue any political solution before the defeat of Assad, and any political solution reached without their agreement will be unenforceable.Russia appears to be reinforcing its support for the Assad regime as it seemingly loses some ground against the rebels. The refugee crisis appears to be putting pressure on the west to stop the war and find a political solution if possible. Russia wants its ally to be in a relatively strong position when negotiations take place. This would explain the buildup described in the Wall Street Journal:
Defense officials said over the past two weeks Russia has stepped up development of an airfield near the port city of Latakia by sending in housing for up to 2,000 people, attack and transport helicopters, artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers. The jets, believed to be Sukhoi Su-27s, which are designed for air-to-air combat, could be used to challenge U.S. planes flying over Syria or to help Syrian forces defending the Assad regime.The buildup could also be used as a means of deterring the U.S. from any move to attack the Assad regime directl,y as rebels have long been urging. Given the Russian experience in Afghanistan and US experience in Iraq, the Russians may not want "boots on the ground" in Syria but will follow US policy of having special forces, trainers, and advisers. However, the Russians did say if Syria requested troops it would consider sending them. The Russians claim their military build-up is purely defensive.