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Russia Says Steps Needed To Avoid Superpower Clash In Syria

  • RFE/RL

Russia called on the United States to reopen channels of communications between the two military superpowers to avoid "unintended incidents" as Russia steps up military assistance to the Syrian government.

At a news conference in Moscow September 11, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to tamp down rampant speculation about what Russia is doing moving more troops and military hardware into Syria, saying it was beefing up forces to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Assad fight the Islamic State group.

Russian servicemen are in Syria primarily to help service Russian-made weapons and teach Syrian soldiers how to use them, he said, while Russian naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean were long-planned and in accordance with international law.

But Lavrov acknowledged that Russia's increased presence in Syria, while the United States and its allies are bombarding the IS in other parts of the country, raises the odds of an accidental clash between the military superpowers.

U.S. officials have also expressed concerns that Russia may strike Western-backed rebel groups battling Assad and ultimately risk a confrontation with the United States and its allied forces fighting IS.

That is why the United States and Russia need to re-establish communication between their military commanders that was cut off in the wake of the Ukraine crisis last year, Lavrov said.

"We are always in favor of military people talking to each other in a professional way. They understand each other very well. It is important to avoid undesirable unintended incidents," he said.

Later in the day, U.S. President Barack Obama responded that the United States would be "engaging" Russia about Syria, but he warned that Moscow's efforts to prop up the embattled Assad regime are "doomed to failure."

"The strategy they're pursuing right now of doubling down on Assad is a mistake," Obama said during a town hall meeting with U.S. military personnel. "We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double-down on a strategy that is doomed to failure."

Obama said the increased Russian military presence would not have an impact on the U.S. "core mission" of fighting IS, but "it could prevent us from arriving to a political settlement" of the Syrian conflict -- a goal espoused by both superpowers.

Obama said Russia, with its large and restive Muslim population in the North Caucasus, faces more of a threat from IS than the United States does.

"The Russians are going to have to start getting a little smarter than they have been," he said.

But Lavrov insisted that it is the U.S. strategy in Syria that lacks savvy and is doomed to fail.

"You cannot defeat Islamic State with air strikes only," he said. "It's necessary to cooperate with ground troops, and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the IS."

Russia's top diplomat stressed that "all sides" involved in the Syrian conflict should coordinate their actions.

"Coordination is also important to prevent various unintended incidents," he said.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP
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