Russia has sent fighter jets to Syria, US officials said, raising the stakes in a military buildup that has put Washington on edge and led to the first talks between US and Russian defence chiefs in over a year.
The US defence secretary, Ash Carter, concerned over the possibility of rival US and Russian air operations in Syria’s limited airspace, agreed in a call with his Russian counterpart to explore ways to avoid accidental military interactions.
The coordination necessary to avoid such encounters is known in military parlance as “deconfliction”.
“They agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-Isil campaign,” a Pentagon spokesman, Peter Cook, said after the call, referring to the campaign by the US and its allies against Islamic State (Isis) militants.
The two countries have a common adversary in Isis militants in Syria, even as Washington opposes Moscow’s support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, seeing him as a driver of the nation’s devastating four-and-a-half-year civil war.
A senior US defence official, recounting details of the conversation, said Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, had described Moscow’s activities in Syria as defensive in nature.
Shoigu said Russia’s military moves “were designed to honour commitments made to the Syrian government”, the US official said. It was unclear what those commitments to Syria are or how Russia’s military buildup was relevant to them.
The talks between Russia and the US came as Syrian army jets carried out at least 25 airstrikes on the Isis-held city of Palmyra on Friday, one of the most sustained government bombardments of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The airstrikes killed at least 26 people, including 12 Isis fighters, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Russia’s latest deployment has added significant airpower to a buildup that, according to US estimates, also includes helicopter gunships, artillery and as many as 500 Russian naval infantry forces at an airfield near Latakia.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said four tactical Russian fighter jets had been sent to Syria. Another US official declined to offer a number but confirmed the presence of multiple jets.
In London, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said the US was looking to find common ground with Russia. Kerry will meet his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, on Saturday for talks expected to focus on the Middle East.
Kerry said it was important to forge a political agreement in Syria and end the hardship of Syrian people. “Everybody is seized by the urgency. We have been all along but the migration levels and continued destruction, the danger of potential augmentation by any unilateral moves, puts a high premium on diplomacy at this moment,” he said.
Still, the White House cautioned Moscow against “doubling down on Assad”.
Carter told Shoigu that future consultations would run in parallel “with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria”, Cook said. “He noted that defeating [Isis militants] and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time,” he said.
The last time a US defence chief talked to Shoigu was in August 2014, the Pentagon said, adding that high-level communications had been halted after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine.
Kiev and the west accuse Moscow of fomenting a pro-Russia separatist rebellion in east Ukraine, which started shortly after the Crimea annexation. Russia denies this.
Moscow’s moves in Syria set the stage for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s address to the UN general assembly on 28 September, probably shifting some attention away from Ukraine and toward the conflict in Syria.
“The trajectory that Putin was on for [the general assembly] was to come to New York and basically be ignored,” said Andrew Weiss, the vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“And now what he’s done is … put himself in the spotlight, and on an issue where there’s a lot of tough questions for western leaders about how they’ve been handling the crisis.”