By MATT BRADLEY, CAROL E. LEE and JAY SOLOMON at The Wall Street Journal
Iraq joined Russia, Iran and Syria in a new agreement to strengthen cooperation against extremist group Islamic State, extending the Kremlin’s reach in the Middle East as it rivals Washington for influence.
U.S. and Russian officials held talks Sunday on the sidelines of a United Nations summit in New York to try to forge a common approach to fighting Islamic State, a day before President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin were to hold their first formal meeting in more than two years at the U.N. The two had an informal encounter in November on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Australia.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry said Sunday that the country had signed an intelligence and security cooperation pact with Russia, Iran and Syria, pledging to cooperate in collecting information about Islamic State. The deal effectively formalizes years of military collaboration among the four nations, which have intermittently been allies since the 1980s.
The deal is another challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East at a time when Russia is deploying new military assets—primarily in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—including fighter aircraft and attack helicopters in the coastal region of Syria.
At the same time, the U.S.-led international coalition that has been striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria from the air since last fall is grappling with a series of setbacks.
U.S. Secretary of StateJohn Kerry met his Russian counterpart,Sergei Lavrov, at the U.N. General Assembly on Sunday in a bid to harmonize military operations in the region, U.S. and Russian officials said.
U.S. officials appeared to be taken by surprise by the announcement of the four-nation security pact and said they were still struggling to understand Mr. Putin’s long-term strategy for the region. Mr. Kerry, they said, kept open the possibility that the White House and Kremlin could coordinate, if not cooperate, in fighting Islamic State.
“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,” said a senior U.S. official who attended the Kerry-Lavrov meeting. “We’ve got a long way to go in that conversation.”
Mr. Lavrov put a more positive spin on the meeting, saying the U.S. and Russia could find a convergence of interests fighting Islamic State.
“The fact is that today, John Kerry confirmed that the only aim of the U.S. and the coalition it has formed is to fight terrorists, primarily [Islamic State], which is our aim as well,” the Russian diplomat told state media.
Mr. Putin’s aggressive push into Syria in recent weeks is increasingly marginalizing the White House’s influence over events on the ground, Arab diplomats said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said late Sunday that he has been in close coordination with Mr. Putin about Russia’s actions in Syria and that they both support an effort to strengthen the Assad regime. “The government in Damascus cannot be weakened,” Mr. Rouhani told a group of American foreign policy experts and journalists in New York.
Washington’s ability to oust Mr. Assad, its stated goal in Syria, is rapidly diminishing, said the Arab diplomats. And any willingness by the White House to collaborate in Syria and Iraq could place it in a de facto alliance with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
“The meeting with Putin is a function of the realities that Putin is creating,” said Dennis Ross, who served as Mr. Obama’s top adviser on the Mideast during his first term. “The Russians are making it pretty clear that nothing is going to happen without them, and they’re putting themselves in the position where we don’t have a lot of choice but to talk to them.”
The new security deal was only the latest example of Iraqi cooperation with Russia, Iran and Syria. Iraq has allowed Russian military transport planes to fly over its airspace to supply Syria with weapons, against the wishes of its American allies.
Russia last year sold jet fighters to Iraq’s air force that were used to bomb Islamic State, after a promised U.S. shipment was delayed. Baghdad is currently negotiating with Moscow to buy more advanced weaponry.
American officials have accused Iraq’s government of allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to transport weapons to Mr. Assad. Iraq has denied it. Iranian-backed militias have also played a leading role in the ground fight against Islamic State in Iraq, often failing to coordinate with U.S. officials.
Moscow has long provided conventional weaponry to the military of Mr. Assad, whose resources have been stretched thin after four years of conflict. But in recent weeks, Russia has deployed new military assets to the country, including tanks and fighter aircraft, in what U.S. officials see as a possible prelude to direct military action.
Mr. Putin said he had informed the leaders of Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia about efforts to coordinate the fight against Islamic State, according to remarks released by the Kremlin on Sunday.
“We are offering cooperation to the countries of the region, and we’re attempting to create a kind of coordination structure,” Mr. Putin said, according to an excerpt of an interview with U.S. broadcaster Charlie Rose also released by the Kremlin.
Mr. Putin said the Kremlin had also informed Washington about its ramped-up activities in the Middle East, saying that U.S. and Russian militaries were in communication with each other. But the Russian leader reasserted that his country’s forces were currently in Syria to assist in training and equipping the military of Mr. Assad.
“With regard to our…presence in Syria, it’s at present expressed in the delivery of weaponry to the Syrian government, in the training of personnel and the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people,” Mr. Putin said.
The White House is looking to Monday’s meeting with Mr. Putin as a decisive moment to determine whether the two leaders can reach a consensus on Syria and Moscow’s role in fighting Islamic State.
Administration officials aren’t expecting a resolution this week. But the meeting is designed to make headway in setting out a formula for a political transition in Syria and for Mr. Obama to gauge whether Russia is willing to relent on its insistence that the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State coordinate with the Assad regime.
By intervening more muscularly in Syria and Iraq, Mr. Putin is directly challenging Mr. Obama’s two core foreign policy objectives for the final year of his presidency: finding a resolution to the multi-sided war in Syria and fine-tuning the fight against Islamic State. Both will feature prominently in Mr. Obama’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.
Mr. Putin’s moves in Syria and Iraq come at a time when Mr. Obama’s policies have faltered. The dynamic gives Russia significant leverage heading into Monday’s meeting.
The Syria crisis has become the one major foreign policy issue Mr. Obama has left unresolved. Despite years of attempts to reach a solution, Mr. Obama never invested heavily in ending the conflict and has been reluctant to wade too deeply into such efforts. His reluctance is largely based in his belief that there is no solution that wouldn't pull the U.S. into another open-ended conflict in the region.
White House officials said Mr. Obama had planned to focus more on the conflict after securing the Iran nuclear deal. But Mr. Putin has expedited that shift.
His military buildup in Syria surprised the White House, which wasn’t planning a meeting with the Russian leader in New York until Mr. Putin forced Mr. Obama’s hand by escalating its involvement in Syria.
The administration’s line on the timing of Mr. Assad stepping down has softened in recent weeks. Some officials don't rule out Mr. Assad remaining in power for several more years as part of an agreement.
A senior administration official acknowledged there is “a new reality” in Syria that has forced Mr. Obama to seek a resolution that allows Mr. Assad to stay in power for a time rather than step down immediately as the White House previously advocated. Russia’s recent moves in Syria helped solidify that shift.