Russia to Washington: Talk to us about Syria or risk ‘unintended incidents’
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia called on Friday for Washington to restart direct military-to-military cooperation to avert “unintended incidents” near Syria, at a time when U.S. officials say Moscow is building up forces to protect President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The United States is leading a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State 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.
Both Moscow and Washington say their enemy is Islamic State. But Russia supports the government of Assad, while the United States says his presence makes the situation worse.
In recent days, U.S. officials have described what they say is a buildup of Russian equipment and manpower.
Lebanese sources have told Reuters that 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 Islamic State. Russian servicemen were in Syria, he said, 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”.
REUTERS/Ruben SprichU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands after making statements following meetings regarding Syria, at a news conference in Geneva September 14, 2013.
“We are always in favor of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well,” Lavrov said. “If, as (U.S. Secretary of State) John Kerry has said many times, the United States wants those channels frozen, then be our guest.”
U.S. 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 4-year-old civil war, with Damascus suffering battlefield setbacks this year at the hands of an array of insurgent groups.
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