The White House said today it’s not really sure what Russian forces are doing in Syria, but they’re definitely going to have a talk with the Kremlin about it.
Press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “a couple of times just this week to discuss this exact issue.”
“I think we’ve acknowledged for some time that the true intentions of the Russians as it relates to this military deployment are unclear,” Earnest said. “So at this point, it’s hard to tell exactly what they’re planning to do, but we’ve I think tried to make clear what we would like to see them do, but ultimately they’ll have to decide.”
Russia has been the chief weapons supplier to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, prompting a years-long congressional battle to disentangle the United States from contracts with their state-owned arms giant Rosoboronexport.
At a troop Q&A at Fort Meade in Maryland today, President Obama was asked by a sergeant deployed in Afghanistan how the newest Russian activity will affect U.S. policy in Syria.
“The good news is, is that Russia shares with us a concern about countering violent extremism and shares with us the view that ISIL is very dangerous. So despite our conflicts with Russia in areas like Ukraine, this is an area potentially of converging interest,” Obama replied. “The bad news is that Russia continues to believe that Assad, who is their traditional partner, is somebody that is worthy of continuing support. And it has been my view and the view of the United States government that as long as Assad is there, he has alienated so much of the Syrian population that it will not be possible to arrive at a peaceful cease-fire and political settlement, and you’ll continue to have this vacuum that’s filled by extremists.”
Obama did make a settlement with Assad, though, after he crossed the chemical weapons “red line” and gassed his own people.
“So Russia has, for many years now, provided financial support, sold arms to Assad. I remember a conversation I had with Mr. Putin four or five years ago, where I told him that was a mistake, it would make things worse as long as he continued to support Assad. He did not take my warnings, and as a consequence things have gotten worse,” the president continued.
“It appears now that Assad is worried enough that he’s inviting Russian advisors in and Russian equipment in…. This is going to be a long discussion that we’ll be having with the Russians, but it is not going to prevent us from continuing to go after ISIL very hard. It could prevent us from arriving at the political settlement that ultimately is needed to bring a peace back to Syria.”
Obama added that “the Russians are going to have to start getting a little smarter than they have been.”
“Because they are threatened in many ways more than we are by ISIL,” he said. “They’ve got large Muslim populations that historically have caused a lot of problems inside of Russia. And the strategy that they’re pursuing right now of doubling down on Assad I think is a big mistake.”
Lavrov said at a press conference that the onus was on Washington, which Moscow blames for derailing military-to-military communications between Russia and NATO after the invasion of Ukraine, to restart communications — or face “undesired, unintended incidents” in and around Syria.
“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 John Kerry has said many times, the United States wants those channels frozen, then be our guest.”
State Department press secretary John Kirby wouldn’t directly answer when pressed today on whether Lavrov was making a threat.
“I would refer you to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian authorities about what they think and what they believe the ultimate outcome is of what they’re doing there,” Kirby said.