Kerry welcomes Russia in Syria — with a warning

Kerry welcomes Russia in Syria — with a warning
© Francis Rivera

Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryNew Hampshire primary turnout is a boost to Democrats New Hampshire only exacerbates Democratic Party agita If Trump renegotiates Iran's nuclear deal, should it be a treaty this time? MORE on Wednesday offered the Obama administration’s most pointed support yet for Russia’s growing military involvement in Syria, but warned that Moscow cannot continue to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“The United States supports any genuine effort to fight ISIL and al Qaeda-affiliated groups,” Kerry said during a United Nations Security Council meeting, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ADVERTISEMENT

“If Russia’s recent actions and those now ongoing reflect a genuine commitment to defeat that organization, then we are prepared to welcome those efforts," he added. "But we must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad."

The top U.S. diplomat’s comments, the Obama administration’s first since Russia began its airstrike campaign in Syria on Wednesday, point to the growing complexity of the situation on the ground there.

Leaders in Washington have grown increasingly anxious about Moscow’s plans for the crisis in Syria, given the Kremlin's long support for Russian ally Assad.

As Russia has begun to wade into the Syrian conflict with the professed goal of rooting out ISIS’s growing reach, it has largely shrugged off the U.S.’s insistence that Assad leave power immediately.  

The contrast came to a head earlier this week, when President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin squared off in a pair of fiery speeches from the U.N. floor, followed by a 90-minute face-to-face meeting.

On Wednesday, Kerry reiterated the Obama administration’s long-standing belief that Assad needs to leave before peace can be brought to Syria, and warned Russia not to overstep its stated goal.

“ISIL itself cannot be defeated as long as Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria,” he said.

“We have also made clear that we would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al Qaeda-affiliated targets are not operating,” Kerry added. “Strikes of that kind would question Russia’s real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime.”

The comments touch on concerns that Russian warfighters will attack Syrian rebel groups supported by the U.S.

The U.S. and a coalition of more than 60 nations have been involved in a sustained airstrike campaign in Syria for months that has included strikes “just an hour ago,” Kerry said.

“These strikes will continue,” he pledged.

The White House on Wednesday reacted cautiously to Russia’s airstrikes in Syria. 

“The Department of Defense is going to take a look at the Russian military activities there,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “It’s too early for me to say which targets they were aiming at and which targets were hit.” 

Earnest reiterated the need for the U.S. and Russia to “deconflict” their military activities inside Syria. 

“It is fair to say that U.S. officials had already been in touch with their Russian counterparts to set up those meetings," Earnest said. “It’s accurate to say those deconfliction conversations have not occurred,” but they are expected to begin soon. 

In a peculiar twist, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov led the U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday.

Lavrov, too, doubled down on his government’s position and said the efforts should rely on ”all of those who are standing up against ISIL on the ground,” including the Syrian government.

As Russia seeks to ramp up its engagement in Syria, the U.S. has expressed a willingness to open lines of communication so that the two nations do not run into each other in the air. Those talks could begin “this week,” Kerry said. 

The ongoing crisis in Syria has led to more than 250,000 deaths and forced millions to flee their homes. The leadership vacuum created by the violence has allowed ISIS to take control of large swaths of the region.

- Jordan Fabian contributed.