WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Ash Carter is still unsure of Russia's military intentions in Syria but intends no further conversations unless Moscow agrees to participate in talks aimed at a political solution to the civil war, Carter's spokesman said Tuesday.
Spokesman Peter Cook said Carter delivered that message to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a phone call last Friday to discuss Russia's military buildup in Syria and how that connects — or interferes with — a U.S.-led coalition air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Cook said Carter has not closed the door to further talks but sees no point in military discussions if Russia does not join the political track.
"Let's see if we can actually reach an agreement to continue this dialogue and these conversations," Cook said. "Again, for this to move forward it's not just a defense conversation that needs to take place, but we feel very strongly that there has to be a second component here and that is, again, a political resolution, a conversation on that front as well."
Asked whether that meant there won't be further military contacts with Russia on Syria unless Moscow agrees to political talks, Cook replied: "That was the message" from Carter.
Cook said Carter's phone conversation with Shoigu was constructive but brought no clarity on what Moscow intends to do with the forces it has sent to Syria in recent weeks, including a substantial number of fighter aircraft, tanks, helicopters, support equipment and troops at an air base near the coastal city of Latakia. Russia is not part of the multinational coalition led by the U.S. that has been bombing IS targets in Syria since September 2014.
"It's not clear exactly what Russia's plans are," Cook said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia was only interested in confronting the threat posed by the Islamic State group, which has established control over large swaths of Syria and Iraq to create what it calls an Islamic caliphate. Kerry stressed that it remained unclear whether Russia would mount a defense of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who the U.S. believes must relinquish power.
Russia's military buildup in Syria has perplexed the Obama administration and left it unsure how to respond. In the afterglow of the Iran nuclear deal, which was hailed by the administration as an example of what can be achieved when Russia and the United States cooperate, U.S. officials had hoped for a change in Russia's position in support of Syria, potentially even enlisting its assistance in moving Assad out.
Moscow's latest actions, however, have taken many by surprise and further muddied efforts to fight Islamic State militants while trying to promote political transition in Syria.
Kerry said Tuesday that the administration still hopes Russia and Iran will play a positive role in Syria and back a political transition for the country.
"But if they are there to shore up Assad and to simply stand there in a way that provides Assad with a continued sense that he doesn't have to negotiate, then I think it's a problem for Syria and it's a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict which has gone on for too long now," Kerry said.
Kerry said Russia's military buildup in Syria appears initially intended to protect its existing assets and personnel on the ground. He added, though, that Moscow's ultimate aim in Syria is not yet clear.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a former commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that while Putin wants to shore up Assad, his thinks Putin's immediate objective in Syria is to solidify a corridor on the Mediterranean coast between Latakia, home to a Russian air base, and Tartus where there is a Russian naval base — its only naval base in the Mediterranean.
Petraeus said, however, that the U.S. should not allow Moscow to push America into a partnership with Russia and the Iran-backed Assad to battle IS. If Russia wanted to fight IS extremists, it could have joined the more than 60-member coalition and help with airstrikes against the militant group, he said. He also warned that the U.S. should not rush to oust Assad without an understanding of who would seek to run the country.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.