WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that he would talk to his Russian counterpart again about Moscow's military intentions in Syria, but cautioned that if the Russians insist on fighting the Islamic State without simultaneously pursuing a political solution to Syria's civil war they will be "pouring gasoline" on the conflict.
In comments at the Pentagon, Carter said the Obama administration is concerned that Russia could use the warplanes and other military force it has recently assembled in Syria to attack the Islamic State or the moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting against the government of President Bashar Assad. Carter declined to say whether he believes the Russian buildup is intended to undertake airstrikes or other offensive military action.
"We're going to be talking to them about their intentions both on the political track and the military track," Carter said. He spoke to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last Friday, and afterward Pentagon officials said it remained unclear how the Russians intend to use their military in Syria.
"To pursue the defeat of ISIL without at the same time pursuing a political transition is to fuel the very kind of extremism that underlies ISIL, and if that's the Russian view that's a logical contradiction," Carter told reporters. "And the way out of that contradiction is to pursue both of those in parallel. And on that basis I think we're prepared to discuss a way ahead with Russia where the political and the military move in parallel."
To do otherwise, Carter said, is to "pour gasoline on the ISIL phenomenon rather than to lead to the defeat of ISIL. At another point he likened a military-only Russian approach to "pouring gasoline on the civil war in Syria."
Russia has been building up its military presence at an air base in Syria, including fighter jets, tanks, helicopters, air defense missiles, personnel and other equipment. Russia is a traditional ally of Syria and has supported Assad, who has clung to power despite a U.S.-led international effort to force him to step down.
In an interview taped with CBS' "60 Minutes" for broadcast Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked if his country was "trying to save the Assad administration."
Putin responded, "Well, you're right." He said any effort to destroy Assad's government "will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region, ... where all the state institutions are disintegrated."
The Russian leader added, "There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism."
Carter spoke at a Pentagon news conference alongside Ukraine's Minister of Defense Colonel-General Stepan Poltorak. Carter said that even if the U.S. and Russia share the desire to oust the Islamic State from Syria, that does not take away from America's support for Ukraine and its condemnation of Russia's military actions there and its annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
Asked whether he could trust what the Russians tell him about their intentions in Syria, Carter said that in earlier days, "the answer to that question was 'trust but verify' and that always seems reasonable. It's not a matter of trust. It's a matter of seeing what the Russians do."
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the U.S. was concerned about Russia supplying Syria with fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to fight the Islamic State, which doesn't have an air force.
"I think there are legitimate questions that we continue to have about the kinds of capabilities we see flowing in there," Kirby said. "Secretary Kerry will continue to have the conversations he needs to have on the diplomatic side to try to get better clarity and better understanding."
Russia has begun flying drone surveillance flights over Syria, gathering intelligence in preparation for what most expect will be the launch of fighter aircraft in the coming days, according to U.S. officials.
The officials said that so far there have been no problems or conflicts with the U.S. and coalition fighter aircraft that continue to bomb Islamic State militants there. They say the Russian drone seen flying Wednesday was a small, unarmed aircraft.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Carter has previously said he is inclined to support defensive lethal aid to Ukrainians battling Russian-backed separatists, a position that differs from the White House. He said Thursday that the U.S. has spent $244 million in equipment and training for Ukraine, but that he and Poltorak said they did not discuss lethal aid during their meeting.
Associated Press video journalist Sagar Meghani and Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.