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Kerry seeks Syria answers in new call with Russian FM

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Washington: Secretary of State John Kerry has made his third phone call to his Russian counterpart in the last 10 days, a State Department official said, seeking to clarify the intent of Moscow’s military buildup in Syria, and warning that continued support for President Bashar Assad will only prolong the Syrian conflict.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry called Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today. Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the call was about Syria.

Kerry’s call came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his military assistance to Assad’s government. Putin said it is impossible to defeat the Islamic State group without cooperating with Damascus and urged other countries to join the cause.

The Obama administration has been perplexed by Russia’s ramped up support for Assad, which includes about a half-dozen battle tanks delivered in recent days. Moscow has also sent other weaponry along with military advisers, technicians, security guards and portable housing units with the main goal of setting up an air base near the coastal town of Latakia, a stronghold of the Syrian president.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama might reach out to Putin in the coming days and would not rule out a meeting of the two leaders later this month at the United Nations General Assembly.

Earnest said the administration’s stance on Russia’s moves in Syria remains the same as it was last week when Obama told US troops that a strategy to prop up Assad is “doomed to failure.”

“We’ve made clear that further support, military or otherwise for the Assad regime is destabilizing and counter-productive, principally because Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead that country. Russia’s decision to double down on Assad is a losing bet,” he said.

Earnest renewed calls for Russia to cooperate with the US-led coalition conducting airstrikes to degrade and destroy the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

“The Russians indicate that they share that goal, and we’d like to see them work cooperatively with the rest of the international community to advance it,” he said.