Sunday 22 April 2018

US to offer Putin 'anti-terror' pact in Syria

Men carry a dead body after an air strike on the rebel-held Al-Hilwaniyeh neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria, yesterday. Photos: Reuters
Men carry a dead body after an air strike on the rebel-held Al-Hilwaniyeh neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria, yesterday. Photos: Reuters

Josie Ensor

The US is expected to offer to cooperate with Russia in Syria, in a controversial deal which would see Washington effectively change course and help shore up President Bashar al-Assad.

US secretary of state John Kerry is in Moscow, where he will offer the option of a military alliance aimed at defeating extremist groups.

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The former Cold War foes support opposing sides in the conflict, with Russia bombing in support of the Syrian government, and the US arming and training rebels.

The deal would see them both working together to attack Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), but also al-Qa'ida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra jihadists, who have been locked in fierce battles with the regime.

Nusra has been a thorn in Assad's side but has so far not been the focus of the US-led coalition's campaign, which has been concentrated on routing Isil.

The Obama administration is suggesting a new command-and-control headquarters near Amman in Jordan that would house US and Russian military officers.

The "Joint Implementation Group" would "enable extended coordination" between their militaries on the Syrian battlefields.

Both countries would have to agree to targets before either one launches aerial attacks.

The so-called "anti-terror pact" would also rein in Syrian government forces, limiting them to striking only in "designated areas" agreed by both major powers, with the hope of curbing attacks on moderate rebel groups and civilian populations.

In return, Mr Kerry wants Russia to commit to a nationwide ceasefire and provide a new framework for political transition, which the US has been demanding for more than a year.

Russia supports the vague idea of "transition" but in a defiant interview yesterday, Assad said the subject of his removal had never come up.

"They (Russia) never said a single word regarding this," he told NBC.

The deal would be a sharp departure from the US's long-standing policy in Syria. For years, Washington and its allies have been calling for Assad to step down, saying there can be no peace with the dictator in power.

It would also undercut its criticism of Russia's military intervention in Syria, which has killed as many as 2,500 civilians since air strikes began in September.

The proposal has been heavily criticised at home by US defence and intelligence officials, who say Russian President Vladimir Putin has diametrically opposed objectives in the country and is not a partner for peace.

Such a pact would bring him out of international isolation and into the fold.

The designation of terrorist groups could be the biggest stumbling block. The regime and its Russian backers are accused of lumping moderate rebels, such as the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), together with more extremist groups such as Nusra.

The situation on the ground in Syria has also become even more complicated since the deal was drawn up.

In the last week, regime forces have besieged the city of Aleppo, the country's second city, leaving 300,000 residents trapped.

Syrian and Russian warplanes have been bombing the eastern rebel-held side of the city relentlessly, saying Nusra is in full control of the area. However, the FSA operates there too and it is unclear whether Washington will now come to its defence and help break the siege.

The deal also risks boosting support for Nusra and other jihadist groups among more moderate Syrians, who could now see the US as being on the wrong side of the revolution.

"The deal is the culmination of the process where the US moves into alignment with the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia in Syria," said Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson think tank.

"The rebellion will feel, not unjustifiably, that this is the US taking sides against them."

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