Tensions over the conflict in Syria are expected to be high on the agenda Monday when U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin hold their first face-to-face talks in about a year.
The two leaders will meet in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Ahead of that meeting, Putin -- for the second time in a week -- addressed Russia's expanding military role in Syria. In an interview recorded in Moscow and aired Sunday, Putin told CBS network's 60 Minutes that Russia intends to support its longtime ally, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But he said Russia will not participate in any Syrian ground action against Islamic State extremists in Syria at this time.
Earlier Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in what the State Department said was a bid to lay the groundwork for the president’s talks with Mr. Putin.
“The critical thing is that all of the efforts need to be coordinated,” said Kerry, as he headed into talks with Lavrov.
Later, a senior State Department official described their talks as a “very thorough exchange of views on both the military and the political implications of Russia’s increased engagement with Syria.”
US Seeks Clarity on Russian Build-up
For weeks, Russia has been sending aircraft and other military equipment into Syria in an apparent effort to support President Bashar al-Assad's regime. That support directly conflicts with the U.S. position that Assad has lost legitimacy and needs to step down.
But in an earlier interview with U.S. TV networks last week, President Putin suggested the U.S. support for the moderate Syrian opposition is illegal.
"In my opinion, provision of military support to illegal structures runs counter to the principles of modern international law and the United Nations Charter. We support only legal governmental structures," said Mr. Putin through a translator.
Russia May Have Ambitions Beyond Syria
Russia has no desire to see the collapse of Assad’s regime, no matter how weakened it becomes, said Faysal Itani, a Middle East scholar at the Atlantic Council.
“This is Russia’s way of saying, ‘I now have a more tangible stake and say in the trajectory of this conflict,’" he said.
Moscow’s stepped-up military engagement in Syria seems to be some kind of “classic hedge,” said Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Clearly, they are interested in protecting the Assad regime,” he said, “but also, I assume, they are looking to leverage it toward some kind of political process down the line.”
New Iraq, Syria, Russia, Iran Alliance
The U.S. effort to gain clarity on the way forward against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq may have been further complicated by a new development in Baghdad.
Iraq said Sunday that it has a new agreement with Syria, Russia and Iran to share intelligence in the fighting the militant group.
Iraqi officials said the new effort by the four countries would focus on “monitoring the movements of terrorists” to try to degrade their capabilities.