The US is planning direct talks between Russian and American military officials over Russia’s growing involvement in Syria, John Kerry has said.
The US secretary of state said on Friday that President Barack Obama believed military-to-military discussions with Russia were “an important step” to resolve a worsening Syria crisis.
The announcement came days after the idea was broached by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in a phone call with Kerry.
According to Kerry, the Pentagon would take the lead in the discussions, but did not elaborate on the exact level, venue and timing.
Later on Friday, Ash Carter, the US defence secretary, and Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, made the first call since August 2014, the Pentagon said.
“They agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-ISIL campaign,” the Pentagon said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
In another development, a Russian media report has claimed that some Russian military contractors are being sent to Syria without their consent.
The report, published by the Russian online newspaper gazeta.ru on Friday, said that 20 troops, including officers and contracted soldiers, were selected from a military unit of Russia’s Eastern military district command and sent on a mission without being told about the final destination.
According to the contractors cited in the report, the commander only told them at the beginning that they might be sent to a “hot country”.
On September 16, they were informally told by a representative of a military chief about the secretly planned deployment to Syria’s Latakia, prompting protest from “almost everyone”.
“Some two or three soldiers, due to their young age and youth and credulity, were thinking the commanders would not dare send us to Syria, and we will be deployed in Crimea or Ossetia instead,” a contractor was quoted as saying.
“We don’t want to go to Syria; we don’t want to die there,” the publication quoted one of the lieutenants as saying.
The contractors sought to hand in their resignation on the same day, but the documents were rejected.
Aleksey Tonevitskiy, deputy military prosecutor of Novorossiysk, where the troops were taken while waiting the departure to the final destination, told gazeta.ru that the whole story was “a nonsense”.
“It was either a provocation aiming to lower the image of the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community by suggesting that our military servicemen are going to the territory of a foreign country to fight,” he said.
“If they are afraid of something, let them please officially say so, in writing, who and what kind of authoritative people are threatening them. We will look into it, no problem.”
The online report said the particular group was supposed to be deployed to Syria on September 17, but it was postponed due to the scandal around the protesting soldiers.
The military base is now awaiting official military commission to look into the issue.
Russia has never acknowledged sending troops to Syria. Moscow says there are only Russian military advisers in the country to support President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to curb ISIL.
However, on Friday, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said that Russia would consider sending troops to fight in Syria if Damascus asked for them.
Dmitry Peskov spoke in response to comments by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who denied reports that Russian combat troops were fighting with Syrian troops – but said that Syria would ask for Russia’s help if needed.
If such a request is made, it will be “discussed and considered”, Peskov said.
– Translation and reporting by Tamila Varshalomidze