Russia’s recent military buildup in Syria has perplexed the administration of US President Barack Obama and left it in a quandary as to how to respond, complicating Washington’s efforts to both combat Islamic State extremists and assist moderate rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Underscoring US uncertainty about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday placed his third telephone call in 10 days to Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, seeking clarity about Moscow’s moves, the US Department of State said.
“Kerry made clear that Russia’s continued support for President al-Assad risks exacerbating and extending the conflict, and undermining our shared goal of fighting extremism if we do not also remain focused on finding a solution to the conflict in Syria via a genuine political transition,” the department said in a statement.
In the afterglow of the Iran nuclear deal, which was hailed by the administration as the kind of diplomacy that can be achieved when Russia and the US cooperate, US officials had hoped for a change in Russia’s position about Syria, potentially even enlisting its support to move al-Assad out.
However, Moscow’s latest actions have taken many by surprise and further muddied efforts to fight Islamic State militants while trying to promote political transition in Syria.
In recent days Russia has sent about a half-dozen battle tanks and other weaponry — along with military advisers, technicians, security guards and portable housing units — to Syria with the apparent goal of setting up an air base near the coastal town of Latakia, a stronghold of the Syrian president.
However, US officials said Putin’s intentions in Syria, particularly in the medium-to-long-term, remain a mystery.
“The decisionmaking process in that country is rather opaque,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of Russia, adding that Moscow has long used Syria as a “client state.”
That history, he said, might indicate that Putin has a long-term goal, but what that might be is “not clear exactly.”
Some officials believe Putin might simply be protecting Russian assets, others that he is betting on al-Assad’s survival and still others that he might be laying the groundwork for a large Russian presence in a post-al-Assad Syria.
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