Russia wants US military co-operation in Syria

Bashar al-Assad

Russia has called on Washington to restart direct military-to-military co-operation to avert “unintended incidents” near Syria, at a time when US officials say Moscow is building up forces to protect president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The US is leading a campaign of air strikes against IS fighters in Syrian air space, and a greater Russian presence would raise the prospect of the Cold War superpower foes encountering each other on the battlefield.

Moscow and Washington say their enemy is IS. But Russia supports the government of Assad, while the US says his presence makes the situation worse.

In recent days, US officials have described what they say is a build-up of Russian equipment and manpower.

Lebanese sources have said at least some Russian troops were now engaged in combat operations in support of Assad’s government. Moscow has declined to comment on those reports.

At a news conference, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was sending equipment to help Assad fight IS. He said Russian servicemen were in Syria primarily to help service that equipment and teach Syrian soldiers how to use it.

Russia was also conducting naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, he said, describing the drills as long-planned and staged in accordance with international law.

Lavrov blamed Washington for cutting off direct military-to-military communications between Russia and Nato over the Ukraine crisis, saying such contacts were “important for the avoidance of undesired, unintended incidents”.

“We are always in favour of military people talking to each other in a professional way.

“They understand each other very well,” Lavrov said. “If, as (US Secretary of State) John Kerry has said many times, the United States wants those channels frozen, then be our guest.”

US officials say they do not know what Moscow’s intentions are in Syria. The reports of a Russian buildup come at a time when momentum has shifted against Assad’s government in Syria’s four-year-old civil war, with Damascus suffering battlefield setbacks this year at the hands of an array of insurgent groups.

The four-year-old war in Syria has killed around 250,000 people and driven half of Syria’s 23 million people from their homes. Some have traveled to European Union countries, creating a refugee crisis there.Differences over Assad’s future have made it impossible for Moscow and the West to take joint action against Islamic State, even though they say the group, which rules a self-proclaimed caliphate on swathes of Syria and Iraq, is their common enemy.


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