(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that newly-announced Russia-Iraq-Iran-Syria cooperation in the fight against ISIS had not been coordinated with the United States, while a senior U.S. official said the administration is still trying to establish what Russia’s motives are in both Syria and Iraq.
The Iraqi military announced at the weekend that Iraq will partner and share intelligence with Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists, who control swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria.
The news evidently came as a surprise to the Obama administration, which counts Iraq as a core member of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, has refused to coordinate with Iran in the campaign, and insists the Assad regime cannot be part of it.
President Vladimir Putin, frustrated by international refusal to include Assad in the anti-ISIS effort, is due to address the U.N. General Assembly and to meet with President Obama in New York this week. The ISIS/Syria/Iraq situation is expected to feature prominently on both occasions.
Russia appears prepared to set up a de-facto coalition of its own, on the surface focused on battling ISIS but also aimed at bolstering Assad and securing Russia’s longer term interests in Syria, where it maintains its only naval presence on the Mediterranean. The U.S. has watched a buildup of Russian military assets in Syria with concern.
As Kerry went into a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York Sunday to prepare the ground for a first substantive Putin-Obama talks since mid-2013, a reporter asked whether the U.S. welcomed the news about Russia-Iran-Iraq-Assad cooperation.
“I think the critical thing is that all of the efforts need to be coordinated,” Kerry replied. “This is not yet coordinated. I think we have concerns about how we’re going to go forward, but that’s precisely what we’re meeting on to talk about now.”
But when a senior State Department official briefed reporters on background after the Kerry-Lavrov meeting, the official said Iraq had not been discussed.
“We didn’t talk about Iraq this morning,” the official said. “The conversation with regard to Middle East was very much on Syria.”
“In terms of getting into what the Russians have or have not already done with the Iraqis, we didn’t get into the detail in this conversation.”
On Syria, the official said Kerry and Lavrov had discussed “both the military and the political implications of Russia’s increased engagement,” and the need to return to efforts to bring about a political transition to end the civil war.
Asked whether there was a danger that the Russians were seizing the initiative in the region, the official said, “we’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians’ intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and to try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here. We’ve got a long way to go in that conversation.”
Even before the announcement from Baghdad, Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government has appeared sympathetic to the Tehran-Damascus-Moscow partnership. It has welcomed help from Shi’ite Iran in fighting the Sunni jihadists inside Iraq, and after the U.S. recently pressed European allies to deny overflight permission to Syria-bound Russian military aircraft, Iraq made its airspace available.
Iraq ‘neutral’ on Assad
At a Council on Foreign Relations event on Friday, Iraqi foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said of Russia’s involvement in Syria, “we support all efforts to alleviate the crisis.”
On the question of allowing Russia to fly military equipment to Syria via its airspace, Jaafari said Iraq “did not violate any of our commitments towards the international community.”
“When one of the countries requested to help us outside the coalition, we did not reject the offer but we made it a condition that they coordinate with the coalition because we have a moral commitment to the coalition.”
Jaafari said Iraq’s stance towards Assad was neutral, since “Syrian is divided” over the regime.
“Part is with the Syrian President Assad, and part is against him. So we stood neutral – not with or against.”
The U.S. has some 3,500 troops in Iraq, deployed by Obama as part of a broad anti-ISIS strategy that incorporates airstrikes against the terrorists in Iraq and Syria, and training and equipping of Iraq forces and “moderate” rebels in Syria to fight ISIS on the ground.
The administration characterizes Iraq as a key member of its 60-plus country anti-ISIS coalition.
When State Department spokesman John Kirby was asked at a Sept. 15 briefing about where Iraq fitted in Russia’s apparent attempts to set up an alternative coalition, he said he would “absolutely not include Iraq in that.”
“So they’re part of your coalition?” he was asked.
“Absolutely,” Kirby replied, describing Iraq as “staunch and steadfast” and “valued” member.
“Well, how can they be a partner in your coalition if it’s supporting the Assad regime?” a reporter pressed.
Kirby rejected the notion that Iraq was supporting the Assad regime, but when asked about Iraq enabling the Russians to fly in military support for Assad, he demurred.
“I’m not going to speak to the specific air corridors that may or may not be used,” he said, repeating earlier remarks that countries approached to allow such flights should “pose tough questions to the Russians” about what they were doing.
Kirby also said there was no need for two coalitions against ISIS, saying Russia was welcome to contribute but reiterating that there was no place for the Assad regime.