A day after new Russian weapons reportedly surfaced in Syria, the United States and Russia have begun to engage in direct military talks aimed at bringing an end to a four-year multi-sided civil war.
The Pentagon announced Friday that US Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter had spoken by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei K. Shoigu, in the first ever discussion between the two ministers of defense. The Pentagon said they discussed "mechanisms for deconfliction" in Syria.
"The president believes that a military-to-military conversation is an important next step," US Secretary of State Kerry said Friday, just hours before Carter's phone call.
Meanwhile, Russia is stepping up its support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Over the past few weeks, the Syrian military has started using new types of air and ground weapons supplied by Russia, a Syrian military source told Reuters Thursday. Details about the type of weapons — whether Russia was supplying new platforms, or merely just resupplying munitions — are still quite sketchy.
"The weapons are highly effective and very accurate, and hit targets precisely," an anonymous Syrian source told Reuters. "We can say they are all types of weapons, be it air or ground."
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using a network of sources on the ground, said Syrian government forces had recently started using new weapons that included guided air-to-surface missiles.
"There are modern weapons that the regime didn't previously have, be they rocket launchers or air to ground to missiles," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem confirmed Thursday that Russia had provided new weapons and trained Syrian troops how to use them, also without saying when or naming specific systems.
He told state television the government would be prepared to go further and ask Russian forces to fight alongside its troops if needed — though he said there were no Russian soldiers in Syria now. But over the past month, Reuters has reported that Russia has sent about 200 naval infantry forces, battle tanks, artillery and other equipment to an airfield near the regime-stronghold of Latakia.
Russia insists that its support for Assad is geared towards fighting terrorism, and pushing back against the the so-called Islamic State (IS), a mutual enemy of the US, Assad, and Russia.
The US has condemned Russia's military support for Assad. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Russia's activities were "counterproductive to the ultimate solution in Syria, which we think is a political and diplomatic solution, not a military solution."
At the same time, the US, along with its allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have actively supported insurgents battling to unseat Assad. A US-led coalition is also bombing Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
While Russia and the US began talks, Assad continued to pound the Syrian opposition from the air. Over the last week, the Syrian air force launched heavy air strikes on the IS-held city of Raqqa, an important base of operations for IS in Syria, which is often targeted by the US-led coalition.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 18 people were killed in the raids that hit several areas in the city and its outskirts, including a maternity hospital.
The war has already killed 250,000 people. Four million people have fled Syria and almost twice as many are displaced inside the country. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have been fleeing to Europe in the biggest migration crisis to hit that continent in decades.