US and Rus­sia close to Syria deal, say of­fi­cials

Lead­ers ex­pected to make an­nounce­ment on war once Isis is de­feated

Weekend Herald - - World - Josh Le­d­er­man and Matthew Lee Don­ald Trump Vladimir Putin

The United States and Rus­sia are near­ing an agree­ment on how they hope to re­solve Syria’s civil war once Isis (Is­lamic State) is de­feated, of­fi­cials said yes­ter­day.

If clinched, the deal could be an­nounced by US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in Viet­nam this week­end, four US of­fi­cials said.

The po­ten­tial un­der­stand­ing comes as an ar­ray of forces are near a fi­nal de­feat of Isis, the ex­trem­ist group that once con­trolled vast stretches of both Iraq and Syria. Fight­ing the group is no longer top pri­or­ity, shift­ing the fo­cus back to Syria’s in­tractable con­flict be­tween Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s Gov­ern­ment and rebels — and to con­cerns that for­eign pow­ers such as Iran will now dom­i­nate the coun­try’s fu­ture.

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

The of­fi­cials weren’t au­tho­rised to dis­cuss the de­lib­er­a­tions and re­quested anonymity.

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

With Isis near­ing de­feat, the US and Rus­sia are los­ing their com­mon en­emy in Syria and will re­main in a proxy bat­tle in which Rus­sia backs As­sad and the US lends at least rhetor­i­cal sup­port to armed op­po­si­tion groups fight­ing the Gov­ern­ment. That has in­creased the need for close com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the two pow­ers about where their forces are op­er­at­ing at any given time, of­fi­cials said.

The agree­ment also seeks to build on progress in es­tab­lish­ing “de-es­ca­la­tion zones” in Syria that have calmed some parts of the coun­try. In July, when Trump held his first meet­ing with Putin in Ger­many, the US and Rus­sia an­nounced a deal that in­cluded Jor­dan and es­tab­lished a cease­fire in south­west Syria. The US has said that cease­fire has largely held and could be repli­cated else­where in the coun­try.

A key US con­cern, shared by close ally Is­rael, is the pres­ence of Ira­ni­an­backed mili­tias in Syria that have ex­ploited the vac­uum of power. The US and Is­rael have been seek­ing ways to pre­vent forces loyal to Iran — Is­rael’s arch­en­emy — 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 United Na­tions 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, aren’t the only dis­cus­sions about Syria’s fu­ture. Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran have been bro­ker­ing their own process in As­tana, Kaza­khstan. AP

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