US secretary of state John Kerry said on Saturday that the US was prepared to negotiate the timing and conditions for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
Speaking in London, Mr Kerry repeated the US position that Mr Assad needed to step down as part of any effort to bring the country’s civil war to an end, but he indicated greater US flexibility about the way that the Syrian leader might leave office.
“We’ve said for some period of time that it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever,” he said. “We’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time. But right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion.”
He added: “Is Assad prepared to negotiate? Really negotiate? Is Russia prepared to bring him to the table and actually find the solution to this violence?”
His comments came after Ashton Carter, US secretary of defence, held direct talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Friday to discuss the war in Syria, amid mounting concern in the west over Russia’s growing military support for the Assad regime.
The talks started as Moscow indicated it could send combat troops to Syria to support the Syrian military.
The flurry of communications and diplomatic messaging follows a sharp build-up of Russian military presence in Syria in recent weeks that has put the Obama administration on the back foot at a time when its own strategy in Syria is coming under renewed criticism.
However, amid the uncertainty over Russia’s plans in Syria there is also the possibility that Moscow’s increased intervention could also open space for an international effort at finding a political settlement to the four year-old civil war.
The Friday phone call with Mr Shoigu was the first time Mr Carter had spoken to the Russian defence minister since he assumed office in March and ended a long period of almost no communication between the two militaries as the result of the conflict in Ukraine.
The Pentagon said the two ministers talked about ways to “deconflict” their respective operations in Syria, including the risk that planes from both countries could be flying in close proximity, and that both nations were focused on defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the jihadi group known as Isis.
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The Kremlin said on Friday that Russia was prepared to consider supporting the Assad regime with troops in combat if the Syrian government asked for that, in the clearest indication so far that it is prepared to step up its military involvement in the Syrian conflict.
“If such a request comes, then it will, in the framework of our bilateral contacts and our bilateral dialogue, naturally be discussed and looked at,” said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of President Vladimir Putin.
He was commenting on remarks by Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, that Damascus would request Russian troops to fight alongside the Syrian army if the need arose.
In an interview with Syrian television on Thursday, Mr Muallem said there were no Russian combat troops in Syria at the moment but confirmed that Russia had “escalated the pace of supplies to our army with weapons and ammunition”.
According to US military officials, however, Russia has significantly ramped up its presence of both support and combat troops in Syria in the past few days. The Pentagon estimates Russia to have troop numbers in the “high hundreds” or “low thousands” in the country. Analysts say they appear to be deployed primarily for defensive purposes so far.
An increasingly complicated armed conflict is pitting rebel groups not only against the regime and its allies, but also against each other
Russia has long co-operated militarily with the Assad regime, supplying arms and experts who help with installation and training. It also has a radio-electronic listening post to gather intelligence on the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. The Kremlin insists that Russian soldiers now in Syria continue to be advisers linked to arms supplies.
But satellite pictures, Syrian battle footage and Russian social media posts as well as US intelligence suggest that Moscow has been drastically stepping up those supplies since late August and could be preparing for more.
In the latest sign of increased Russian involvement, a US official said, Russian fighter jets had been observed in recent days at the airfield in western Syria near Latakia where the Pentagon believes Moscow is developing a forward-operating air base.
Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that while Russia had no intention of deploying ground combat forces to Syria, it might consider sending pilots and flying air attacks.
The Russian government presents its increased military involvement as part of an effort to build a broad coalition against Isis. Despite its denials of combat forces on the ground, the Kremlin has been much less secretive about Syria than its involvement in the Ukraine war.
But as the US launches air attacks as part of its own coalition against Isis, military experts fear a separate Russian involvement could lead to dangerous incidents, especially as western governments doubt whether Moscow, in a potential air campaign, might target opposition forces other than Isis which are also fighting Mr Assad’s army.
On Friday, two Russian news outlets reported that contract soldiers from the eastern military district were being sent to Syria on secret missions, and some were refusing to go after finding out about their destination.
Mr Peskov said the Kremlin was not aware of this. The military district command denied that some of its servicemen were being sent to Syria.