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Russia's Military Deployment In Syria Reignites Contact With U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russia has sent attack aircraft to Syria to a new base that the Russians are creating in Latakia. This deployment prompted a phone call between the U.S. Defense Secretary and his Russian counterpart. Of course, the United States had cut off military to military contacts over Russia's aggression in Ukraine. But now it seems the two countries are cooperating on Syria in some ways. Steven Lee Myers, a correspondent for The New York Times, has been following the story and what it might say about Russia's changing position in the world. Mr. Myers is the author of the soon to be published book "The New Tsar: Rise And Reign Of Vladimir Putin." He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Thank you.

SIMON: Of all the things Russia could be doing now, why do they choose to throw their arms around Bashar al-Assad and step up military aid?

MYERS: I don't think it's new that they're supporting Assad at all. I mean, they have been pretty consistent from the beginning of the uprising, initially peaceful protest against the regime. And then as it descended into civil war, Russia has all along provided weapons, provided support, political and diplomatic efforts to shield Assad's government from action, for example, at the United Nations where Russia has a veto. I think what's new now is that they're looking at the situation in Syria as becoming more and more dire.

SIMON: But you know, there's a difference between U.N. vetoes and supplying - and military supplies and actually putting your own combat personnel or potential combat personnel on the ground.

MYERS: I think that they're looking at the situation and understanding that right now there's a real danger that Assad's government can fall. And if that happens, what will replace that and how do you prepare for that when you're invested as heavily as they have been? Again, this is not new support. They've always had the naval base there. They've always had advisers on the ground. I've heard a lot over the summer about the increasing Russian concern about the imminent fall of Assad.

SIMON: Well, the U.S. had - at least as far as we can judge - had considered the potential fall of Bashar al-Assad to be good news and something that could lead to a better situation.

MYERS: I think that's where the huge difference is between the Russian perspective and the United States, certainly, but in other Western countries as well. Russia looks at the fall of Assad as an apocalyptic event. And we can look at it from our perspective and think of Assad as a horrific dictator who's contributed enormously to the civil war that's unfolded over the last few years. But in Putin's mind especially, he sees the legitimate government of Syria as being Assad. And that if that falls, what will replace it? And I think that's a concern where we do have some common ground because if Assad governments falls, the ISIS expansion, I think, will only continue. And there will be other groups that will be vying for power. There will be a vacuum. It'll be what's happened in Libya.

SIMON: What are the risks, as you see them, of increased Russian involvement?

MYERS: I think the risks, first of all, is that it becomes a proxy war between Russia, Iran and Syria on one side and the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the West on the other. And even though we share a common enemy, I believe, in the Islamic State, you could have us each fighting it in different ways that inevitably whenever you introduce military forces into a region, you could have the United States bombing Russian troops who are fighting the Islamic State. You could have Russian forces bombing the rebels that we have supported in Syria or coming into conflict with, you know, planes flying overhead as they each carry out airstrikes. It seems to me that there needs to be - and I think this is what's happening now with the talks that have begun - a way to deconflict that.

SIMON: Stephen Lee Myers - his book, "The New Tsar: The Rise And Reign Of Vladimir Putin," comes out later this month. Thanks so much for being with us.

MYERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.