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Kerry, Putin meet to salvage Syria peace talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin July 14 to see if they could reach an agreement on a US plan to deepen US-Russian coordination on Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Nemenov/Pool - RTSC3SA

WASHINGTON — Warning a UN-backed Syria peace process was nearing the “end stage” before collapse, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for three hours in Moscow on July 14 to see if they could reach agreement on a US proposal to deepen US-Russian coordination to target al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, ground the Syrian air force, expand the Syria cease-fire nationwide and make way for resumed Syria political transition talks.

“We are here to test again, in what is pretty close to the end stage, of whether this is going to work,” a senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists flying in with Kerry to Moscow on July 14.

A partial Syria cease-fire negotiated by the United States and Russia in February broke down after about six weeks because of both flagrant regime violations as well as attacks by al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, the senior State Department official said.

“While not as prominent … in the breakdown of the cessation as the actions of the regime, … [Jabhat al-Nusra forces have] conducted offensives and they've led opposition groups into those offensives and that's led to fighting back and forth,” the senior State Department official said.

“If we cannot get to a solution that resolves both of those problems [attacks by the regime and Jabhat al-Nusra], we're going to be in a very different place, and the reality is that time is short here,” the US official said.

"Let's see what happens in Moscow in the next few hours. Let's hope there is some type of general understanding or progress," UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva on July 14. "I think the next few days are crucial in order to make sure we know where they stand. When the two co-chairs agree on something … that helps a lot."

A recent US proposal, published by the Washington Post on July 13, calls for the United States and Russia to establish a Joint Implementation Group to be based near Amman, Jordan, “to work together to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh [Islamic State] within the context of strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities and supporting the political transition process,” the document, titled “Terms of Reference for the Joint Implementation Group,” states.

It also calls for grounding the Syrian air force, with exceptions for medical evacuation and personnel recovery. “The regime is prohibited from flying in designated areas; designated areas include areas of most concentrated Nusra presence, areas of significant Nusra presence, and areas where the opposition is dominant, with some possible Nusra presence,” the proposed “terms of reference” states.

However, the US proposal for deeper US-Russian coordination against Jabhat al-Nusra is controversial within the US administration, with some Pentagon, intelligence and State Department officials expressing doubt the Russians could be trusted to restrain the Syrian regime or not to use the intelligence to target US-backed rebels, given their track record of doing so in the past months.

"It’s pretty obvious that their agenda is not 100% aligned with our own," US Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the commander of the US-led coalition battling the Islamic State, told reporters in Baghdad on July 14, Reuters reported. "I’d be a little leery about giving too much information to the Russians, but I fully trust that our government officials understand this and know they’ll arrive at something that makes sense."

White House officials acknowledge the misgivings but see no other viable approach to try to end the war.

“We will not commit indefinitely to diplomacy that does not achieve real results,” a US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor on July 13. “We cannot provide political cover for those seeking to pursue a different agenda.”

“Russia's significant military intervention gives it enormous responsibility for Syria's future,” the US official said. “It's long past time that Russia decides whether it is serious about advancing such shared objectives in Syria.”

Michael Kofman, a Russia military analyst at the Kennan Institute, said Russia understands it ultimately needs US help to advance a negotiated settlement in Syria, but in the meantime it's helping shape events on the ground in a way that strengthens Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, splinters the rebels, and might make a negotiated solution harder to reach.

“Russia is at an inflection point in this conflict,” Kofman told Al-Monitor in an interview July 13. “They had pretty good results [from the] use of force to achieve political ends, but now they are reaching diminishing returns.”

He said, “Their use of force is not nearly as decisive as before.” Approaching the one-year anniversary of the Russian intervention in Syria in September, “some of the Russian combat operations [commanders] are wondering, 'What is the way forward here?'”

But Russia is still struggling to agree to the proposal Kerry came to discuss, even though they agree on many points, Kofman said.

“It is not easy for Russia to promise on behalf of Syria,” he said. “The second part of this is, there has been a clear objective for Russia, Syria and Iran for many months to cut off the rebel position in Aleppo and surround the city, and they are almost done. The pressure is too strong. … Russia is moving the ball incrementally, to the finish line, the encirclement of Aleppo. They almost got there.”

“Russia intends to shape the [situation on the ground] so when the next US administration gets in, what they find is there are no groups in the conflict acceptable to the US as an alternative to Assad,” he said.

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