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U.S. Open to 'Tactical, Practical' Talks With Russia On Fighting IS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) suggested to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) earlier this week that there should be direct military-to-military talks to coordinate action in Syria.

WASHINGTON -- The United States says it is open to "tactical, practical" discussions with Russia about cooperating on military action against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria, but continues to insist that Russia should not try to prop up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The comments by White House spokesman Josh Earnest came on September 17 as Russia, again, pushed for the U.S. administration to work with Assad's government in the fight against IS militants who have overrun wide swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Russia, a staunch ally of Assad, has built up a sizable military force in western Syria -- reportedly including T-90 tanks, heavy artillery, anti-aircraft missiles, and scores of naval infantry.

The buildup has worried Washington, which says it fears Moscow's goals are aimed at supporting Assad's regime rather than defeating IS fighters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week that there should be direct military-to-military talks to coordinate action in Syria.

Earnest told reporters at the White House that the U.S. administration welcomes "constructive contributions from the Russians" in the fight against IS militants, also known as ISIL.

"So that's why we'll remain to open to tactical, practical discussions with the Russians in order to further the goals of the anti-ISIL coalition and ensure the safe conduct of coalition operations," he said.

"We've made clear that Russia's military actions inside of Syria, if they are used to prop up the Assad regime, would be destabilizing and counterproductive," Earnest added. "That propping up a regime that's losing its grip on power, in many cases, only has the effect of driving more Syrians into the arms of extremists.

Earnest said that there is "no military solution to the turmoil that plagues Syria right now."
"The solution to this lies in advancing the kind of political agreement that would transfer Assad out of power and put in power a government inside of Syria that has the confidence and reflects the will of the Syrian people."

Washington and its NATO allies broke off military cooperation with Russia in early 2014 after the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and the outbreak of a bloody conflict between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Russia, which has been a stalwart supplier of weapons to Syrian forces and maintains a strategic military presence at Syria's port city of Tartus, has stymied U.S. efforts to push Assad out.

In 2013, after sarin gas was used against civilians in the Syrian city of Ghouta, Washington threatened to hit Assad's forces with airstrikes before Russia stepped in and brokered a deal for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile.

'No Conflict Of Interests'

In recent weeks, amid growing reports of Russia's military buildup near the Latakia airbase, the United States has sought to persuade nearby countries to forbid Russia to use their airspace to transport personnel and materiel into Syria.
The Pentagon said on September 14 that Russia is planning to use the Latakia location as a forward air operating base.

Speaking after talks with his Turkish counterpart in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Lavrov on September 17 repeated Moscow's insistence that the U.S.-led coalition coordinate actions with Assad's government.

"Тhe Syrian president commands the most capable ground force fighting terrorism," Lavrov was quoted as saying by news agencies.

"Rejecting such a possibility, ignoring the capability of the Syrian Army as a partner and ally in the fight against [IS militants] means sacrificing the security of the entire region for political or geopolitical intentions and calculations," he said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed that Moscow is happy to talk to Washington about its military cooperation with Syria and provide any information the United States would like.

"We have repeatedly told our American colleagues that we are ready to provide any information they need through the existing channels of communication, so that military experts on both sides could discuss the relevant issues," she told a September 17 briefing in Moscow.

There "can be no talk about any contradiction or conflict of action or interests" between Russia and the United States in Syria if Washington's goal is to fight IS militants, Zakharova said.

With reporting from AP and Reuters
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.