Wednesday 17 January 2018

Deal with Russia on Syria's future is near - US officials

A tank fires on militants' positions on the Iraq-Syria border. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)
A tank fires on militants' positions on the Iraq-Syria border. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The United States and Russia area nearing an agreement on how they hope to resolve Syria's civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated, officials have said.

If clinched, the deal could be announced by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting in Vietnam on Friday, four US officials said. The United States has been reluctant to hold a formal meeting between the leaders unless they have a substantive agreement to announce.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Friday that the two men will not hold a formal meeting due to scheduling conflicts on "both sides" but it was possible they could have a less formal encounter while in Vietnam.

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

The US-Russia agreement being discussed would focus on three elements, officials said: "deconfliction" between the American 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 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 IS 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 Mr Trump held his first meeting with Mr Putin in Germany, the US nd Russia announced a deal that included Jordan and established a ceasefire in south-west Syria. The US has said that ceasefire has largely held and could be replicated elsewhere in the country.

A key American concern, shared by close ally Israel, is the presence of Iranian-backed 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 arch-enemy - 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, 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, though they have led to local ceasefire deals that have also reduced violence.

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

The US-Russia deal may also seek to expand the mandate of a joint "monitoring centre" established this year in Amman, Jordan, to watch for ceasefire violations and other developments on the ground. It has focused on south-west Syria, where the ceasefire is in place, but could be used to monitor broader stretches of the country.

Although Moscow has sought a formal meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Putin while both are in Vietnam this week, the US has not committed to such a meeting. Washington's concern is that it would not serve US interests unless there is progress between the countries to announce - on Syria or something else. Mr Putin's aides have said a meeting is likely on Friday and that the time, place and format are being worked out between the governments.

"We have been in contact with them, and the view has been, if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting?" Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Beijing on Thursday.

AP

Press Association

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