The State Department said it was making progress with Russia on a ceasefire in Syria, even as the White House signaled it was ready to walk away soon if talks didn’t achieve a good agreement and the Pentagon attacked Moscow’s role in the civil war there.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the third time in two weeks on the heels of a meeting in China Monday between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20.
Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that the US wanted to put the finishing touches on the deal, but added that while progress had been made, gaps remain.
Senior administration officials billed Kerry’s latest bid to strike a deal with the Russians as a last-ditch effort to test Russian intentions before the US abandoned plans to cooperate more closely with Russia.
For weeks, the US and Russia have been struggling to come to terms on a cease-fire between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and moderate rebels that would expand humanitarian access for hundreds of thousands of Syrians. The US and Russia are also holding talks on coordinating more closely on the air operations each is conducting in Syria.
But both Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter have had tough words for Russia in recent days, dimming the prospect of a deal on a cease-fire and closer military cooperation. The US and Russia are both ostensibly fighting ISIS in Syria, but America has charged that Russia has mostly focused on bombing groups opposing Assad, a close Moscow ally. Some of those groups are supported by the US.
Carter told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Wednesday that Russia will bear responsibility for Assad’s actions Syria.
“It could use its influence to help put an end to this civil war,” he told her in London. “They bear the responsibility of the consequences of things that they could avoid.”
“But this morning’s episode suggests that at least as of this morning things are definitely not heading in the right direction,” he added, referring to an alleged chlorine attack in Aleppo Wednesday.
Expressing further skepticism, Carter said that while “you’ve got to keep hoping, the experience suggests that we’re not close to that point” where Russia will change its actions.
And Obama has questioned whether a deal was possible given the “gaps of trust” between the two countries after his meeting with Putin. A senior administration official told reporters Tuesday the US would “walk away” from talks with Russia if a good agreement couldn’t be reached.
“We would like to see this, if it can get done, happen quickly because of the enormous humanitarian needs,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters. “If it cannot get done, we won’t sign on to a bad deal.”
The strategy hinges on deeper cooperation between the US and Russian military against extremist groups operating in Syria, particularly ISIS and Nusra Front.
But the US has resisted coming to an agreement due to Russian and Syrian regime actions against civilians in the besieged, rebel-held city of Aleppo. On Wednesday, a fresh round of airstrikes there killed at least seven people and injured more than 40 in Aleppo’s al-Sukkari neighborhood, an activist from the Aleppo Media Center told CNN.?
The strikes come a day after dozens of people were hospitalized in a suspected chlorine gas attack, one of several in the area being investigated by the international community.
The US wants a nation-wide cease-fire in Syria between the regime and the rebels in order to create the conditions for UN-led political talks to end the five-year war, rather than a time-limited cessation of hostilities in certain areas.
After Kerry and Lavrov were unable to agree on terms Monday during a meeting in China, Obama and Putin told their top diplomats to keep working — but the prospects aren’t promising.
“We have had some productive conversations about what a real cessation of hostilities would look like that would allow us both … to focus our attention on common enemies,” Obama said Monday. “But given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation, and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work.”
High stakes for Moscow
The decision to deepen cooperation with Moscow was already controversial, given the Obama administration’s public criticism of Russia’s role in Syria. A cessation of hostilities negotiated between Kerry and Lavrov in February fell apart within weeks and efforts to reach a political settlement in the war-torn country are on the verge of collapse.
For months, the Russians have been pushing the US to agree to share intelligence on targeting ISIS and al-Nusra militants. Under the plan being discussed, an “implementation cell” would house US and Russian military planners together, sharing intelligence, maps and targeting information. Officials said Russia has pledged not to use the information to target US-backed rebels.
“The Russians badly want this agreement,” one senior official said. “Their argument is if we want them to stop targeting our opposition, we should tell them where they are. So it’s a tactical thing, but it’s also political. They want the US military to recognize they have a role to play in Syria.”
What the U.S. would offer
In exchange for the military partnership, Russia would agree to halt its attacks on US-backed rebels and other groups the US does not consider terrorists and deliver assurances Assad would do so as well.
“In areas where there is just opposition or intermingling of opposition with Nusra, Assad will not be able to fly,” another senior administration official said. “That essentially puts Assad’s air force on the ground in most circumstances.”
But Pentagon officials told CNN that extreme mistrust of the Russians is coupled with logistical concerns that make such an agreement complicated. For starters, the US doesn’t want to be held accountable for civilian casualties caused by Russian strikes against ISIS targets.
Although the US shares some mutual interest with the Russians in bombing groups like Nusra Front, the Pentagon does not see the Russians as critical to that effort, nor is it eager to give Russia sensitive US intelligence about where US aircraft are operating in Syria.
A main point of contention is the mingling of opposition fighters, backed by the United States and Middle East allies, and Nusra militants, mostly in southwestern Aleppo. Russia has balked at a ceasefire in areas where there is so-called “marbling” of the two groups.
Another sticking point centers around access to the main “Costello road” leading to Aleppo, where distrust between the regime and rebels has held up delivery of critical humanitarian supplies.
Last month, the Russians introduced a plan to provide “safe corridors” for people to flee Aleppo. But Kerry warned if the plan was a “ruse” to empty the Aleppo for the Syrian army to target opposition forces as they leave and then seize the city, it would risked “completely breaking apart” any hope of cooperation.
“Nobody’s going to sit around and allow this pretense to continue,” Kerry said.
A break for aid
Senior US officials said Tuesday they hope an initial 48-hour ceasefire in Aleppo will enable the UN to set up internationally monitored check-points that could get aid through.
Administration officials said the US would want to wait several days to see if a ceasefire took hold before moving forward on an agreement for a military partnership with Russia.
Several senior administration officials have told CNN in recent weeks the administration was discussing possibly declaring the cessation of hostilities over and ending its cooperation with Russia if Moscow continued to violate the ceasefire and block the flow of humanitarian aid. But the lack of a viable alternative in Syria to trying to work with Russia has continued to cause paralysis.
Senior US officials say the White House is close to pulling the plug if Kerry’s latest diplomatic mission fails to produce an agreement, or an agreement fails to take hold.
“I think this is the last card that is going to be played,” one senior administration official said. “I can’t imagine there is going to be much patience for Kerry to do more horse trading if this doesn’t work.”