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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Russia seeks US help to rebuild Syria

Proposal from Syrian regime ally has received an icy reception in Washington, US government memo shows 

A man walks along a street in the devastated Syrian city of Raqqa on January 9, 2018. Delil Souleiman / AFP
A man walks along a street in the devastated Syrian city of Raqqa on January 9, 2018. Delil Souleiman / AFP

Russia has used a closely guarded communications channel with America’s top general to propose the two superpowers co-operate to rebuild Syria and repatriate refugees to the war-torn country, according to a US government memo.

The proposal was sent in a July 19 letter by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian military’s general staff, to US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the memo that was seen by Reuters.

The Russian plan, which had not been previously reported, has received an icy reception in Washington. The memo said the US policy was only to support such efforts if there were a political solution to end Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, including steps such as UN-supervised elections.

The proposal illustrates how Russia, having helped turn the tide of the war in favour of President Bashar Al Assad, is now pressing Washington and others to help the reconstruction of areas under his control. Such an effort would likely further cement Mr Al Assad’s hold on power.

“The proposal argues that the Syrian regime lacks the equipment, fuel, other material, and funding needed to rebuild the country in order to accept refugee returns,” according to the memo, which specified that the proposal related to Syrian government-held areas of the country.

In 2011, the US adopted a policy that Mr Al Assad must leave power but then watched as his forces, backed by Iran and then Russia, clawed back territory and secured his position.

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The US has drawn a line on reconstruction assistance, saying it should be tied to a process that includes UN-monitored elections and a political transition in Syria. It blames Mr Al Assad for Syria’s devastation.

Gen Dunford’s office declined to comment on communications with Mr Gerasimov.

“In accordance with past practice, both generals have agreed to keep the details of their conversations private,” said spokeswoman Captain Paula Dunn.

The Kremlin and Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Syria conflict has killed an estimated half a million people, driven about 5.6 million people out of the country and displaced about 6.6 million within it.

Most of those who have fled are from the Sunni Muslim majority, and it is unclear whether Mr Al Assad’s Alawite-dominated government will allow all to return freely, or whether they would want to. Sunnis made up the bulk of the armed opposition to Mr Al Assad.

“The United States will only support refugee returns when they are safe, voluntary and dignified,” said the memo, which is specifically about the Russian plan for Syria.

Rebuilding Syria will also be a massive effort, costing at least $250 billion, according one UN estimate.

Some US officials believe Syria’s dependence on the international community for reconstruction, along with the presence of US and US-backed forces in part of Syria, gives Washington leverage as diplomats push for a negotiated end to the war.

The exchange offered a rare glimpse into the military communications channel between Moscow and Washington, one that Gen Dunford himself has sought to keep private.

The US general, who speaks periodically with his Russian counterpart, has stressed that the two militaries need to be able to have candid, private communications to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to armed confrontation.

But it was unclear how reconstruction and refugees fit into military-to-military communications. Gen Gerasimov’s letter suggests that channel is also being used by Moscow to broach non-military matters.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Syria, and the issue of refugees, at their July 16 summit in Helsinki. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the talks focused on “how we might get the refugees back”.

But US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said last week no policy changes came out of the summit. The US government memo explicitly said the Russian proposal was not “an outcome” of the Trump-Putin talks but cautioned that Russian officials were trying to present it differently.

“Russian diplomats and other officials have also been engaging in an aggressive campaign to describe the initiative in other capitals and to insinuate that it is an outcome of the US-Russia meeting in Helsinki, which it is not, repeat not,” the memo read.

The Russian cover letter for the proposal sent to Gen Dunford recommended the US, Russia and Jordan repurpose a hub designed to monitor a 2017 ceasefire agreement “to form a joint committee to implement the reconstruction and refugee return plan”, the memo said. Jordan is hosting more than 650,000 Syrian refugees.

The Russian letter also suggests that America and Russia form a joint group to finance infrastructure renovation in Syria, the US memo says.

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