Russia says there is a risk of a "proxy war" developing in Syria after the US disclosed plans to deploy ground troops to the country to help in the fight against the Islamic State (Isis) militant group. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the decision made co-operation between the US and Russian armed forces of critical importance.
Washington said it would deploy less than 50 special force troops to northern Syria to advice and assist moderate rebel groups in their fight against Isis. It came as the five major foreign players in the conflict – the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – met in Vienna and agreed to push for a ceasefire and new elections.
The US-led coalition's year-long bombing campaign against the IS militant group in Syria has been complicated by Russia's entry into the conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, while Iran is also an active backer of the Syrian regime. Washington and its allies insist there can be no political future for Assad but Russia and Iran see him as a vital partner.
Shift in strategy
"I am sure that neither the United States nor Russia want [the conflict] to become a so-called proxy war," Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Reuters agency. "But it is obvious for me that the situation makes the task of co-operation between the militaries more relevant."
Earlier, the Pentagon said the ground troops being deployed to Syria will act in a support capacity and not take part in frontline combat. "Our role fundamentally and the strategy is to enable local forces, but does that put U.S. forces in harm's way? It does, no question about it," US Defence Secretary Ash Carter was reported as saying.
The decision to commit ground forces marks a dramatic shift in Washington's Syrian strategy. It contradicts the Obama administration's previous statements that US forces would not be put on the ground there.