Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the State Department announced a suspension in “bilateral channels with Russia” related to reducing the violence in Syria.
The Wednesday phone call between the two diplomats, first disclosed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, raised immediate questions about whether the United States was already backtracking on its threat to cut off ties with Moscow.
In acknowledging the phone call, State Department spokesman Mark Toner defended the high-level contact. “They did talk about the situation on the ground in Syria,” he said, “my argument back to you would be it would be irresponsible for Secretary Kerry not to raise what’s happening in Syria and make our concerns clear about what’s happening there.”
Toner faced stiff push back from reporters seeking to understand the practical extent of the suspension of ties. “You tell the Russians one thing, and then you turn around and don’t follow through on it,” Associated Press reporter Matt Lee said.
Toner said the suspension only applied to a diplomatic channel setup to sustain a cessation of hostilities in the country. Such a suspension apparently did not preclude talks between Kerry and Lavrov on Syria who have remained in near constant contact throughout the deadly civil war.
“While that particular bilateral channel has been suspended we’re not going to just walk away from what’s happening in Syria,” Toner said.
The State Department announced the halting of talks with Russia on Monday after a relentless bombing campaign by Russian and Syrian jets on the besieged city of Aleppo.
“This is not a decision that was taken lightly,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at the time.
The U.S. also cancelled plans to share military intelligence to target the Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.
Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, continue to call for military action against the Syrian government but U.S. officials have warned that regime change in Damascus could empower Sunni extremist groups and lead to even more chaos in the country.