Russia, US defence chiefs seek 'common ground' in Syria talk
Russia and the United States on Friday launched military talks on the Syrian conflict as Moscow said it would consider requests by Damascus to despatch troops to the war-torn country.
The phone conversation between Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter ends an 18-month freeze in military relations over the Ukraine crisis, which Washington hopes will help in efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Russia's defence ministry said the talk marks a resumption of military-to-military cooperation between the countries and that the practice would continue.
Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the call lasted one hour and focused on "the necessity to coordinate bilateral and multilateral efforts to combat international terrorism."
Washington has fretted this month over reports of a Russian military buildup in Syria as a boost to President Bashar al-Assad, accusing Moscow of sending ships, artillery and tanks.
Moscow argues that any military support falls in line with existing defence contracts, but reports have surfaced of secret deployments to the country, where Moscow has a Soviet-era naval facility.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman on Friday said Moscow would consider any request for troops from Assad, comments likely to heighten Washington's security concerns.
"If there is any request then it would naturally be discussed and evaluated through bilateral contacts and dialogue," Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
- 'Common ground' -
Putin has provided vital support to Assad throughout a popular uprising against his regime that has fuelled a brutal civil war killing 240,000 people and displacing four million.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem denied any Russian involvement in actual combat, adding that the Syrian army was capable of fighting and only needs more weapons.
"Up to now there is no joint combat on the ground with Russian forces, but if we need them we will look into it and ask," he said on state television.
Washington had warned Moscow that bolstering Assad would make the situation worse, and Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that military talks would prevent this.
"Obviously the focus remains on destroying ISIL and also on a political settlement with respect to Syria which we believe cannot be achieved with a long-term presence of Assad but we are looking for ways in which to try and find a common ground," he said.
The resumption of contact with the Pentagon is a welcome step for Moscow as Putin pushes for a broader coalition of forces against the Islamic State in Syria and assumes a more prominent international role after being ostracised over Ukraine.
Russia-US military-to-military contacts were stopped in March 2014 after Russian troops' involvement in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia and the West are currently locked in their worst standoff since the Cold War over neighbouring Ukraine and both the EU and the US have slapped sanctions on Russia for fuelling a separatist rebellion across the border.
- Covert deployments to Syria? -
A report in Russian online newspaper Gazeta.ru, which has previously written about Russian soldiers in Ukraine, said Friday that some soldiers may be headed for Syria in covert deployments.
It quoted a soldier named Alexei as saying that troops had been sent to a southern Russian port city without being told where they would be shipped and were expecting to be deployed to Syria on verbal orders.
Some worried family members are already contacting rights groups, however, said Valentina Melnikova, who campaigns for rights of soldiers.
"We were contacted by relatives of officers, professional soldiers, who were sent away on a train with their travel passports towards the south, and weren't told about their destination," she told the Echo of Moscow radio.
"Relatives were afraid that they are being sent to Ukraine or Syria."
Western diplomats say Putin may now be trying to come in from the cold by exploiting the West's desire to end Syria's bloody conflict that has prompted a stream of refugees to Europe.
© 2015 AFP