WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is still uncertain whether U.S. and Russian interests overlap in Syria, despite a shared concern about the threat from Islamic State fighters, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday.
Russia has sought military-to-military discussions with the United States as it forges ahead with a buildup in Syria that now includes more than two dozen advanced fighter jets, as well as tanks, troops and artillery.
Carter’s remarks, his first on the matter, did not rule out such discussions. But he suggested he would not support any cooperation with Moscow without an agreement to also discuss, in parallel, removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Moscow is a longtime ally of Assad, a position fiercely opposed in Washington, which views the Syrian leader as a driving force in the country’s four-and-a-half year conflict.
“To pursue the defeat of ISIL without, at the same time, pursuing a political transition, is to fuel the very kind of extremism that underlies ISIL,” Carter told a Pentagon news conference, referring to the Islamic State.
Carter, who spoke with Russia’s defense minister last week, said it would be a “logical contradiction” for Moscow to believe it could weaken Islamic State without addressing Syria’s political future.
He also cautioned Moscow against “indiscriminately” attacking all of Assad’s foes, hinting at U.S. fears that Moscow might strike moderate rebels supported by Washington.
“We will continue to work with Russia on issues where our interests overlap. It is possible but not yet clear that such an overlap might exist in Syria,” Carter said
Syria is expected to be high on the agenda when U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in New York next week.[ID:nL1N11U238]
Although the Kremlin said the main focus would be on Syria, the White House insisted the meeting would focus on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces are fighting the Kiev government. That has prompted tough sanctions that have damaged Russia’s economy.
Carter, speaking at a press conference with Ukraine’s defense minister, said that Russia’s actions in Syria would not distract the United States from the situation in Ukraine.
Asked whether Washington should trust what it hears from Moscow, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said his experience with Russia had shown that Moscow was not always truthful.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Sandra Maler and Alan Crosby