Leaked proposal: US offering Russia military pact in Syria – USA TODAY
PARIS – The United States is offering Russia a new military pact against the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria, according to a leaked U.S. proposal.
If finalized, the arrangement could dramatically alter Americaâs role in the Arab countryâs five-year civil war.
The document published by The Washington Post calls for joint bombing operations, a command-and-control headquarters and other synchronized efforts. U.S. and Russian officials with expertise in intelligence, targeting and air operations will âwork together to defeatâ the extremist groups, the eight-page paper states.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was to discuss the proposal in Russiaâs capital later Thursday, declined to comment.
âIâm going to Moscow, meeting with President (Vladimir) Putin tonight,â Kerry told reporters in Paris. âWeâll have plenty of time to talk about it and Iâll give you all a sense of where we are.â
Such a partnership would undercut months of U.S. criticism of Russiaâs military intervention in Syria. And it would put the U.S. alongside Syrian President Bashar Assadâs chief international backer, despite years of American demands for Assad to leave power.
Russia would be getting what it has wanted since intervening in Syria in late September: An international alliance of sorts. Washington previously rebuffed Moscowâs requests for military cooperation, accusing the Russians of using anti-terrorism objectives as a pretext for protecting Assadâs position. The U.S. also says Syriaâs military and Russiaâs air force have repeatedly violated truces with moderate rebel groups backed by the U.S. or its allies.
U.S. officials said no agreement with Moscow has yet been reached. Prospects for such a deal are unclear.
âWeâre not going to comment on details of documents that have not been approved or agreed to,â said a senior State Department official, who wasnât authorized to speak on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The proposed, U.S.-Russian âJoint Implementation Groupâ would be headquartered near Amman, Jordan. At its most basic level, the former Cold War foes would share intelligence and targeting information. But they âshould coordinate procedures to permit integrated operations,â if the U.S. and Russia decide such operations are in their interests.
Russia would confine air strikes to vetted targets and not let Syrian forces bomb âdesignated areas.â Some exceptions apply.
The military partnership is part of what U.S. officials are terming a final offer to Moscow. In exchange, the U.S. wants the Russians to pressure Assad into ending a bombing campaign against moderate militant groups and civilian populations, and allowing unfettered aid to besieged, rebel-held areas. Washington also wants Russiaâs help in forcing Assad to start a political transition that would ultimately end his familyâs four-decade hold over the country.
Russia supports the vague idea of âtransition,â but has never publicly spoken of Assad having to resign.
The proposal would address one of the most persistent problems with efforts to enforce a ceasefire in Syria: the Nusra Front, al-Qaidaâs Syria affiliate. The group is engaged in a variety of local alliances with other rebel groups the U.S. and its Arab allies want shielded by the so-called cessation of hostilities. And Nusraâs fighters are often embedded with such groups on the battlefield or move between various fighting formations.
For that reason, the U.S. has almost entirely avoided bombing Nusra targets in recent months. Russia hasnât hesitated. But in taking out Nusra forces, the U.S. says Russia also has killed hundreds of moderate, anti-Assad fighters and civilians â undermining chances for peaceful diplomacy.
Thursdayâs talks in Moscow are scheduled fewer than three weeks before an August ultimatum by President Barack Obamaâs administration for diplomatic progress. All signs augur poorly for a breakthrough in a war that has killed as many as a half-million people since 2011, contributed to a global migration crisis and spawned ISâ international expansion.
Fighting rages near Aleppo, Syriaâs largest city. Assad has reasserted control over several areas of the country he had once lost. Humanitarian aid deliveries are sporadic and grossly insufficient. And counterterrorism campaigns against the IS and al-Qaida show no end in sight, meaning any peace would only be partial.
Two months ago, Kerry said the transition had to start on Aug. 1, or Syria and its backers are âasking for a very different track.â But any Plan B has remained undefined beyond vague hints of a military intervention involving Saudi troops. The White House and Pentagon have resisted a greater U.S. role.
Much of Washington is wary about working too closely with Russia. The U.S. doesnât want to be seen as entrenching Assad, whom American officials have referred to as a âbutcherâ and âmass murderer.â Russiaâs bombers also have attacked anti-Assad rebel groups that have received weapons, training and other forms of support from the U.S. and allies such as Saudi Arabia â whose foreign minister Kerry met in Washington earlier this week.
And a dissent cable signed by 51 State Department officials last month showed a sizeable part of Americaâs diplomatic establishment believing a U.S. military response against Assadâs forces was necessary, given Moscowâs increased leverage as a result of its intervention.
Opposition to the administrationâs newest Syria plan is shared by a significant number of officials at the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community, according to several American officials.
But beyond reaching out to Russia, the administration has few other options right now. Suggestions of U.S. force donât carry much weight, given the various, unfulfilled threats throughout the war â from Obamaâs declaration five years ago that Assadâs days were ânumberedâ to his vow of a military response if chemical weapons were used, only to back down in 2013.