The diplomatic initiative amounted to a pivot for the Obama administration, which two weeks ago delivered a stern warning to Russia that its military buildup in Syria risked an escalation of the civil war there.
LONDON — As the first Russian combat aircraft arrived in Syria, the Obama administration reached out to Russia on Friday to try to coordinate actions in the war zone and avoid an accidental escalation of one of the world’s most volatile conflicts.
The diplomatic initiative amounted to a pivot for the Obama administration, which two weeks ago delivered a stern warning to Russia that its military buildup in Syria risked an escalation of the civil war there or even an inadvertent confrontation with the United States. Last week, President Obama condemned Russia’s move as a “strategy that’s doomed to failure.”
But the administration seemed to acknowledge that Russia had effectively changed the calculus in Syria in a way that would not be soon reversed despite vigorous U.S. objections. The decision to start talks also reflected a hope that Russia might be drawn into a more constructive role in resolving the 4-year-old civil war.
At Obama’s instruction, Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday opened a dialogue on Syria with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, aimed at making sure that U.S. and Russian forces avoid running into each other by mistake. The Russians have sent tanks, other equipment, marines and combat aircraft to a new military hub near Latakia in western Syria. The Americans have flown hundreds of air missions in Syria targeting the Islamic State group.
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But while Carter’s initial military-to-military talks were limited, officials indicated the larger goal was to draw the Russians into a process that would ultimately replace Syria’s government of President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally of Russia.
“The president believes that a mil-to-mil conversation is an important next step,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday in London, where he was visiting to consult with allies. “It will help to define some of the different options that are available to us.”
Still, the stakes have become even higher, as a senior U.S. official Friday confirmed that four Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft had been deployed to the air base in recent days, along with four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered weapons and equipment to the air base in the past 10 days.