US, Russia closing on Syria deal
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.”