The Obama administration Friday began military-to-military talks with Russia over the Syrian war, an acknowledgment that Moscow has become an even more important player in the conflict despite U.S. efforts to isolate it.
The move is a major victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been desperate to break out of the diplomatic isolation imposed because of Russia's support for separatist fighters in Ukraine. Russia's economy has been battered by sanctions, low oil prices and a weak ruble, but Putin is hoping to put himself at the center of international negotiations over Syria. He plans to unveil a new diplomatic plan for the conflict this month at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Until now, the Obama administration has loudly denounced the Kremlin for its continuing buildup of troops and arms in Syria.
The most recent addition to the buildup has been the arrival of four Russian fighter jets at an air base in Latakia province in northwest Syria, the home territory of President Bashar Assad and his Alawite religious minority.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry disclosed the opening of talks while on a visit to London. The goal would be to "define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria," he said.
Shortly after he spoke, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had talked by phone with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, their first conversation since Carter took the post seven months ago.
The opening of talks signaled that the U.S. administration recognizes it will have to reexamine core assumptions about the crisis, analysts said. It also raised the question of whether the administration would allow Iran — Assad's most important backer — a seat at the negotiating table.
Administration officials "can't be happy" to be talking to the Russians about Syria, said Julianne Smith, a former top advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. "But the reality is that conflict is so transforming Syria's region, and beyond, that they have no choice but to try to lead. And that requires reaching out to Moscow."
Iranian participation in talks is "the bigger question," she said. "Negotiations are all about talking to countries you don't have a positive relationship with, when you don't have an alternative."
Smith, who is now with the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, said the administration is probably not ready to abandon its insistence that Assad leave Syria. But she said administration officials might be more flexible on other issues, such as whether to allow some of Assad's top lieutenants to remain in power.
Kerry seemed to hint at new flexibility in the administration's stand, at least on the question of how quickly Assad should leave power.
"Our focus remains on destroying [Islamic State] and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with the long-term presence of Assad," Kerry said.
"We're looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground," he added. "Clearly, if you're going to have a political settlement, which we've always argued is the best and only way to resolve Syria, you need to have conversations with people, and you need to find a common ground."
His conciliatory comments were in sharp contrast to remarks two weeks ago, when, in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he demanded Russia scale back its military presence and warned that Russia might "risk confrontation" with U.S. forces.
Now 41/2 years old, the Syrian civil war has become ever more threatening to the region as it has sent millions of refugees far beyond the country's borders. As the humanitarian toll has risen, the U.S. has been thrown on the defensive by criticism of its strategy.
At the same time, Russia has steadily increased its military presence in the country. The decision to send fighter jets deepens U.S. suspicion that Russia intends to use Bassel Assad International Airport in Latakia as a base to launch attacks on rebel groups fighting the Bashar Assad government.
Over the last two weeks, the Russians have modified the small commercial airport into a fully functional airfield. They have flown an average of two cargo supply flights a day and have put in place an aircraft control tower and prefabricated housing units for up to 2,000 people, as well as tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and attack helicopters.
Arrival of the fighter jets was "the culmination of what we've observed for weeks now," said one U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "It continues to be a steady buildup."
U.S. officials said the first goal of the talks would be to prevent conflict between Russian forces helping Assad and the U.S. forces conducting an air campaign against Islamic State.
Although the Obama administration wants to see Assad leave power, it opposes many of the rebel groups fighting his government, particularly Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Moscow argues that world powers should help Assad defeat Islamic State and other rebel groups.
A U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record emphasized the importance of "deconflicting" the U.S. and Russian forces, noting that they are in "close proximity" where there is a danger of accident or unintended conflict. "It's important to ensure that doesn't happen," the official said.
There were hints that military officials would discuss issues beyond just avoiding conflicts in Syrian airspace. Officials said the goal of fashioning a broader strategy to end the war would be taken up in separate diplomatic discussions.
Peter Cook, a Pentagon spokesman, quoted Carter as saying that the military talks would be pursued "in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria" and that "defeating ISIL and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time."
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Moscow was open to a dialogue with the United States "on all matters of mutual interest, including Syria."