Russia Urges U.S. to Enlist Syria’s Assad to Fight Islamic State

Sergei Lavrov
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Photographer: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. should form a military strategy with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to fight Islamic State by combining a Syrian ground offensive with U.S.-led air strikes.

“The coalition is carrying out air strikes and everyone admits, including publicly, that you can’t defeat Islamic State from the air alone,” Lavrov said in an interview with Rossiya 24 television broadcast on Friday. “There will have to be ground operations.”

Iraqi government troops together with Shiite militias and Kurdish forces are trying to wrest back territory from Islamic State, which is extending its grip on swaths of the country and neighboring Syria, Lavrov said. “I’m sure that the Syrian leadership is willing to act in the same way. I don’t see how one can do without” its help, he said.

Russia is providing its Soviet-era ally with weapons while repeatedly urging the U.S. to ditch its policy of seeking the ouster of Iranian-backed Assad in a bitter civil war, and to cooperate instead on defeating Islamic State.

Jeff Rathke, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington on Friday, before the Lavrov interview aired, that the U.S. position remains that Assad has “lost his legitimacy,” that “he has no future in Syria and he must go.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to step up cooperation when they met for the first time in two years at the Black Sea resort of Sochi this month, amid deep strains in the relationship between the former Cold War foes over the conflict in Ukraine.

Building Bridges

The U.S. and Russia can work together effectively in many areas, such as in the joint efforts that led to a deal in 2013 on disarming Syria’s chemical arsenal and in the talks to end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, Lavrov said.

Kerry suggested resuming military-to-military contacts to exchange information and avoid flare-ups, a welcome idea that Russia supports, Lavrov said.

“Honestly speaking, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s visit de facto signified Washington’s understanding that you have to build some bridges and end this unfortunate episode in our relations,” he said.

Islamic State militants this month seized the city of Ramadi, 110 kilometers (68 miles) west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The radical Sunni group also occupied the northern Syrian city of Palmyra, a strategic location that is home to one of the region’s most renowned classical sites.

Blaming Kiev

On Ukraine, Lavrov said that major Western powers understood that the government in Kiev is the one blocking the implementation of a peace accord signed in Minsk, Belarus, in February. Some European countries may call publicly on Ukraine to do more to fulfill the agreement, he said.

The U.S. at talks in Moscow last week repeated calls for a full cease-fire as well as a pullback of heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine, while warning Russia that any new separatist offensive in Ukraine would violate the Minsk agreement.

Lavrov also said that an expansion of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia is one of five, veto-wielding permanent members, should take place to reflect the new balance of power in the world. He urged a compromise between opponents and supporters of appointing more permanent members to the council, a status sought by Brazil, India, Germany and Japan.

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