US open to "practical" discussion with Russia on Syria

US open to "practical" discussion with Russia on Syria
The US signalled it is ready for limited talks with Moscow on operations against the Islamic State group following its deployment of troops and weapons to Syria
3 min read
18 September, 2015
Russia recently offered to hold military-to-military talks with Washington [Getty]

The White House said Thursday it was open to limited talks with Moscow following the controversial deployment of Russian troops and heavy weapons to war-torn Syria.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama's administration was willing to hold "tactical, practical discussions" on operations in Syria and the fight against the Islamic State group (IS).

The decision signals a newfound willingness to engage with Russia, after months of giving Vladimir Putin the cold shoulder over his actions in Ukraine and Syria.

Russia recently offered to hold military-to-military talks with Washington after covertly deploying troops, artillery units and tanks to Syria.

It's difficult to discern exactly what their most important priority is
- White House spokesman Josh Earnest

Many Western officials suspect the assets will be used to further prop up President Bashar al-Assad, despite claims they will be used to tackle IS extremists.

"It's difficult to discern exactly what their most important priority is," Earnest said.

Putin has provided vital support to Assad throughout a popular uprising against his regime and as the conflict has metastasized into a brutal civil war that has killed 240,000 people and displaced four million.

But Moscow has also sought to portray Assad's army as a bulwark against Islamist rebels, including the IS.

Washington and European states view Assad as a pariah who shoulders blame for driving Syria into chaos and allowing the Islamic State group to thrive.

But with Western efforts to tackle the Islamic State group floundering, and the moderate Syrian opposition losing ground to radical groups, the White House may hope to enlist Russia in the fight.

Putin's gambit

It was not immediately clear whether the US-Russia discussions on Syria would be held by the military or civilians, or at what level.

Military dialogue between Russia and the United States has been virtually suspended since 2014 in response to Moscow's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine had resulted in international sanctions that have hollowed the Russian economy and left Putin isolated.

Western diplomats say Putin may now be trying to come in from the cold by exploiting the West's desire to end Syria's bloody conflict that has prompted a stream of refugees to Europe.

The Russian leader is expected to use his speech at the United Nations General Assembly later this month to push for a diplomatic solution to the conflict that allows Russia to retain its bulwark of influence in the Middle East.

The White House has so far rebuffed suggestions that Obama would meet Putin on the sidelines of the meeting.

Instead, the administration said it would use lower level talks to urge Russia to focus its actions in Syria on countering the IS.

"We have made clear that Russia's military actions inside of Syria, if they are used to prop up the Assad regime, would be destabilising and counterproductive," Earnest said.

"That all being said, we have long indicated we could welcome constructive contributions from the Russians to the anti-ISIL coalition," he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

"That is why we remain open to tactical, practical discussions with the Russians in order to further the goals of the counter-ISIL coalition and to ensure the safe conduct of the coalition operations."