U.S., Russia Revive Syria Talks With Islamic State in Focus

  • Humanitarian crisis in Aleppo may bring 48-hour ceasefire
  • Sticking point is how soon Syria’s leader should leave power

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart in Geneva Friday in a renewed bid to coordinate the fight against Islamic extremist groups in Syria after 5 1/2 years of civil war.

While the U.S. and Russia are still at odds about the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and differ on how to counter the rebel groups, the talks might bring about a weekly 48-hour pause in fighting to allow United Nations aid convoys to reach the city of Aleppo in northwest Syria. The city has seen fierce fighting between rebel groups and Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes, and hundreds of thousands of civilians remain cut off from relief.

The meeting marks yet another attempt to reach some agreement on easing a conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people and spurred millions of Syrians to seek refuge in Europe. Numerous efforts in the past to pause the fighting and start a political transition have failed, stymied by Assad’s refusal to leave power, Russian and Iranian support for his regime, and the mingling of moderate and extremist rebel groups fighting him.

Asked at the start of the gathering to identify the main impediment to a broader nationwide ceasefire, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded: “I don’t want to spoil the atmosphere for the negotiations.”

One focus of the talks was a U.S. government proposal to coordinate with Russia on airstrikes against the Islamic State and other Syrian rebel groups that the two countries agree are terrorists. Under that overture, Russia would use its influence to persuade Assad to ground his air force and uphold a ceasefire. The U.S. in turn would share intelligence with Russia for strikes against Islamic groups.

Moderates and Extremists

Any U.S.-Russian coordination would be complicated by the fact that Russia says there are Islamic extremist groups mixed in with the moderate rebels that the U.S. supports. Russia accuses the U.S. of preventing strikes on terrorist groups out of concern that would mean targeting these rebels.

“A terrorist center” remains in those areas of Syria and “no one can deal with it because so-called moderate opposition groups are there,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in an interview the day before the talks.

Reflecting the challenges posed by the talks, Kerry said earlier this week he didn’t know if an agreement with Russia was likely or not. “I wouldn’t express optimism; I would express hope,” he said then.

At the moment, a key focus is the humanitarian situation in Aleppo. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said Thursday that Russia has agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire there and he’s waiting to hear if rebels will do the same. He said trucks are ready to bring humanitarian relief to the city.

“We’re very focused obviously on the cessation of hostilities, yes, on wide humanitarian access, yes, creating the grounds for a political solution,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said Thursday.

Changing Goals

The U.S. says the fight against Islamic State can’t happen without Assad leaving power. Russia thinks differently; its intervention in September of last year reversed the rebel advance. Syria is also getting help from Iran, and in recent days Turkey launched its own assault across its border with Syria, driving Islamic State fighters from the town of Jarabulus with American air support.

While President Barack Obama demanded Assad’s ouster five years ago, his administration may ease off its demand that he leave to address more immediate issues such as the humanitarian crisis, according to analysts including Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group.

“I think there’s a shift in the balance of intellectual opinion in the administration, toward postponing ‘Assad must go’ in the name of providing humanitarian assistance to save lives,” Kupchan said. “The Obama administration correctly perceives this as the last best chance to ease the killing during this administration and are therefore willing to swallow a bitter pill and get more on-board with the Russian initiative than they would have liked to in an ideal world.”

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