Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says Russia’s expanding military buildup in Syria could “pour gasoline on the [Islamic State] phenomenon,” because Moscow is bent on backing one of the extremist group’s top enemies — embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Any successful effort to crush the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, without simultaneously pursuing a political transition away from Mr. Assad will only “fuel the very kind of extremism that underlies ISIL,” Mr. Carter said Thursday.
If Moscow thinks otherwise, he said, then Russia’s policy is one of “logical contradiction.”
At the same time, however, Mr. Carter suggested the Obama administration is willing to work with Russia and may be easing off its long-held position that Mr. Assad’s ouster be a precondition for peace talks with U.S.-backed opposition forces in Syria — as long as the ultimate goal remains political transition in Damascus.
While Russia stands with Iran as the Assad regime’s top international backer, the defense secretary said there are signs Moscow may be moving toward abandoning the Syrian leader.
Mr. Carter told reporters at the Pentagon that he spoke last week with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, and came away the impression that he genuinely share’s Washington’s “desire to defeat ISIL” as well as “the need for a political transition in Syria.”
“I think we’re prepared to discuss a way ahead with Russia where the political and the military move in parallel,” Mr. Carter said. “But that’s only possible on a course that is going to have an accompanying political transition, because to do otherwise — in a phrase I’ve used before — is to pour gasoline on the ISIL phenomenon rather than to lead to the defeat of ISIL.”