US, Rus­sia clos­ing on Syria deal

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON: The US and Rus­sia are near­ing an agree­ment about how they hope to re­solve Syria’s civil war once Is­lamic State is de­feated.

If clinched, the deal was ex­pected to be an­nounced by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Viet­nam overnight, four US of­fi­cials said.

The US has been re­luc­tant to sched­ule a meet­ing for the lead­ers unless they have an agree­ment to an­nounce. White House press sec­re­tary Sarah San­ders said yes­ter­day that they would not hold a for­mal meet­ing be­cause of sched­ul­ing con­flicts on “both sides”.

The po­ten­tial un­der­stand­ing comes as an ar­ray of forces close in on a fi­nal de­feat of Is­lamic State, which once con­trolled vast stretches of Iraq and Syria. On Thurs­day ISIS was ex­pelled from its last ur­ban strong­hold, the Syr­ian town of Albu Ka­mal, near the Iraqi border.

With fight­ing Is­lamic State no longer top pri­or­ity, the fo­cus re­turns to the in­tractable con­flict be­tween dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad’s regime and rebels — and to con­cerns about for­eign pow­ers such as Iran dom­i­nat­ing Syria’s fu­ture.

The US-Rus­sian agree­ment be­ing dis­cussed would fo­cus on three el­e­ments, of­fi­cials said: “De- con­flic­tion” be­tween the US and Rus­sian mil­i­taries, re­duc­ing vi­o­lence in the civil war and rein­vig­o­rat­ing UN-led peace talks.

The US and Rus­sian mil­i­taries have main­tained a “de­con­flic­tion” hot­line for years to avoid un­in­tended col­li­sions and even con­fronta­tions as they each op­er­ate in Syria’s crowded skies. A heavy air cam­paign by Rus­sia has shored up the po­si­tion of As­sad.

With Is­lamic State near­ing de­feat, the US and Rus­sia are los­ing their com­mon en­emy and will re­main in a proxy bat­tle in which Rus­sia backs As­sad and the US lends at least rhetor­i­cal sup­port to rebels fight­ing the govern­ment. That has in­creased the need for close com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the two pow­ers about where their forces are op­er­at­ing at a given time.

The agree­ment also seeks to build on progress in es­tab­lish­ing “de-es­ca­la­tion zones” that have calmed some parts of Syria.

In July, when Mr Trump held his first meet­ing with Mr Putin in Ger­many, the US and Rus­sia an­nounced a deal that in­cluded Jor­dan and es­tab­lished a cease­fire in south­west Syria. That cease­fire has largely held and Wash­ing­ton reck­ons it could be repli­cated else­where in the coun­try.

A key US con­cern, shared by close ally Is­rael, is the pres­ence of Ira­nian-backed mili­tias that have ex­ploited the power vac­uum. The US and Is­rael have been seek­ing ways to pre­vent forces loyal to Iran from es­tab­lish­ing a per­ma­nent pres­ence. One idea hinges on a buf­fer zone along Is­rael’s border with Syria.

A third el­e­ment of the deal would reaf­firm sup­port for the UN ef­fort be­ing run out of Geneva to seek a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria and re­solve the civil war. The US and Rus­sia have been at odds for years over whether As­sad could be al­lowed to re­main in power in a fu­ture Syr­ian govern­ment.

The UN talks, which have come in fits and starts with­out yield­ing sig­nif­i­cant progress, are not the only dis­cus­sions about Syria’s fu­ture. Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran have been bro­ker­ing their own process in As­tana, Kaza­khstan. The US views those talks war­ily be­cause of Iran’s in­volve­ment, although they have led to lo­cal cease­fire deals that also have re­duced vi­o­lence.

“We be­lieve that the Geneva process is the right way to go,” State Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said yes­ter­day. “Un­for­tu­nately, it is a long way off, but we’re get­ting a lit­tle bit closer.”

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