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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

US offers to cooperate with Russia as Syria peace talks fail again

Ahead of a highly anticipated meeting between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Hamburg on Friday, Washington said that it was prepared to cooperate with Moscow

BEIRUT // As talks to end Syria’s six-year civil war continue to falter, the US is once again offering to cooperate with Russia in the Trump administration’s most concerted effort yet to involve Washington as a peacemaker in the war-torn country.

Ahead of a highly anticipated meeting between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Hamburg on Friday, Washington said it was prepared to cooperate with Moscow on no-fly zones as well as on ceasefire observers and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

"If our two countries work together to establish stability on the ground, it will lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria's political future,” said US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in a statement on Wednesday.

The offer is the most tangible step yet towards a broader US role in brokering a settlement in Syria, and a far cry from the Trump administration’s prior hands-off - even disinterested - approach to settling the civil war.

The US was a key player in Syria peace talks under former president Barack Obama, but Mr Trump’s team has until now focused on fighting ISIL.

With US-backed forces poised to capture ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa and deal a crippling blow to the extremists, Washington’s priorities may be shifting to accommodate the realities of the complex battlefield, to which it has deployed troops.

“If we do not achieve stability in Syria, our progress in defeating [ISIL] may be undone,” said Mr Tillerson.

But some doubt the motives behind the call for cooperation, saying Washington sees it more as the one chance the US has to work closely and constructively with Russia on their common goal of defeating ISIL and other extremist groups.

“I really think that once this [ISIL] fight is over, the Russian and American administrations are going to say ‘our job is done in Syria’ and their contributions - pushing for a peace process - will be minimal,” said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “They will attend meetings, but you are not going to see a kind of active involvement of the Trump administration.”

The US offer of cooperation came as peace talks in Astana once again ended without concrete steps towards ending the Syrian conflict or establishing civilian safe zones. The talks in the Kazakh capital are backed by Turkey, Iran and Russia - all of which have a direct role and diverging goals in the conflict - but are viewed sceptically by many of Syria’s rebels.

Further talks are to be held in Astana next month while UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva, deadlocked for years, resume next week.

The Astana initiative was largely born out of frustration at the failure of the Geneva process. The new, parallel peace process gave more weight to countries actively involved in the war while sidelining the US, which played a key role in the UN talks. But with Turkey backing Syrian rebels and Iran and Russia on the side of government, deadlocks are emerging despite earlier progress. Moscow and Damascus blame Ankara for the lack of progress in the latest negotiations.

Cooperation between the US and Russia could establish a new route to peace in Syria, but they would first have to overcome major differences.

While Mr Tillerson hailed the deconfliction channels established between the two countries to prevent accidental or hostile encounters in Syria, it was just weeks ago that Russia threatened to treat US aircraft operating west of the Euphrates River as targets after a US warplane downed a Syrian jet. Russia has been angered by increased US attacks on pro-Syrian government forces and remains upset over the April 7 US missile strike on a Syrian air base. Late last month, Moscow said it would respond to any further US attacks on the Syrian government.

In his message to Moscow, Mr Tillerson was very open to cooperation but also reminded Russia that it had obligations to prevent Damascus from using chemical weapons and to consider the interests of the Syrian people.

On Thursday, Moscow continued to appear wary of US involvement in Syria, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claiming that Syrian “terrorists” were preparing to launch a chemical weapons attack, which would then be blamed on the government to draw in fresh US strikes.

Yury Barmin, an expert on Moscow's Middle East policy at the Russian International Affairs Council, described the accusations and threats towards the US as “hot air”, saying that cooperation was in fact possible.

He believes Moscow is secretly being pleased that increased US pressure could get Damascus take the peace process seriously and not seek to escalate the conflict, something Russia has been unable to do.

“The Syrians are not going to be happy about this [cooperation deal], and I think the Russian rationale is that putting no-fly zones over de-escalation areas will be the goal there, at least in preventing the Syrians from escalating the conflict,” he said.

The Russian government is publicly not happy with US attacks on the Syrian government, he added, but “behind the scenes I think the Russians are relieved because they tried to convince the Syrians that they need to be more serious.

"And the things that the Americans do - bombing the Syrian army - that’s what’s going to make the Assad forces more serious about their commitments.”

Ms Slim said that despite the overlap in goals, there were still factors that could derail US-Russian cooperation, with Moscow unable to control the Syrian government or its other allies.

“It all hinges on whether Russia can deliver Iran to any agreement, be it deconfliction zones or, eventually, a sustainable ceasefire,” she said.