An Opening on Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. wants to engage in military-to-military talks with Moscow on the conflict.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a meeting in Qatar last month. (Brendan Smialowski / Pool / Reuters)

Updated on September 18 at 12:54 p.m. ET

The United States is ready to start talking to Russia about Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday during his trip to London that the Obama administration wants to engage in military-to-military talks with Moscow about its recent military buildup inside Syria. Russia had offered to begin the conversation, according to the Associated Press.

“The president believes that a military-to-military conversation is an important next step, and I think, hopefully, it will take place very shortly,” Kerry said.

Shortly after those comments, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Ash Carter had a “constructive conversation” with Sergei Shoygu, the Russian defense minister, on the situation in Syria. Here’s more:

The secretary and the minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia's perspectives overlap and areas of divergence. They agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) campaign. The secretary emphasized the importance of pursuing such consultations in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria. He noted that defeating ISIL and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time. Both the secretary and the minister agreed to continue their dialogue.     

Earlier this month, Kerry called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to inquire about U.S. intelligence reports that suggested Moscow was sending troops to Syria. A week later, Israel’s defense chief said several Russian forces had arrived there for the purpose of fighting Islamic State militants. The movements put U.S. officials on edge. Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has supplied his government with weapons throughout the course of the country’s five-year-long civil war. Russia’s relationship with the U.S., meanwhile, has been frosty since last spring.

Kerry said the forthcoming talks will help “define some of the different options that are available to us as we consider next steps in Syria.” More, from The New York Times:

“Our focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria, which we believe cannot be achieved with a long-term presence of Assad,” Mr. Kerry said. “But we’re looking for ways in which to try to find a common ground. Clearly, if you’re going to have a political settlement, which we have 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.”

Russian officials have criticized the Obama administration for not working with Assad in the air campaign against the Islamic State inside Syria’s border. Russia and the U.S. both agree the terrorist group must be stopped, but they have not found common ground on how to do so. The countries also have not agreed on a solution to the Syrian civil war. The U.S. wants Assad gone as part of any political settlement in the country; Russia has only increased its support for the Syrian leader in recent years.

Lavrov will travel to New York later this month for the 70th U.N. General Assembly, where he will meet with Kerry. Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend, too, after skipping last year’s, and the White House is split on whether Obama should meet with him.

State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said during a press briefing Friday afternoon that “we’re trying to seek out more information about what the Russians are doing and what their intentions are.”

Toner pushed back against a reporter’s question about whether the Obama administration, by accepting Russia’s offer to start talking, is easing up on its commitment to remove Assad from power.

“I don’t think we’ve resigned ourselves to anything,” he said, adding later: “We don’t want to see him getting any more support.”