Trump, Putin Seek to Mend Fences Starting With Syria Crisis

  • White House says ‘very good’ call discussed Syria safe zones
  • Kremlin says leaders seek to meet on sidelines of G-20 summit

A Syrian man inspects the wreckage of a collapsed hospital after an airstrike in Damascus, on May 1, 2017.

Source: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had what the White House called a “very good” call during which they agreed to step up efforts to cooperate on resolving the Syria conflict and the fight against terrorism. 

“President Trump and President Putin agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” according to a White House statement Tuesday. “The conversation was a very good one, and included the discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.”

The two appeared to be overcoming heightened tensions over a U.S. missile strike last month on Russia’s ally Syria and allegations of Moscow’s interference in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign. Steadying the U.S.-Russia relationship could open the way to the broader cooperation Trump promised during the campaign, when he said the world would be better off if the Cold War rivals got along.

They also discussed having their first one-on-one meeting in July on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany, according to the Kremlin. While its statement said the two leaders were “in favor of organizing a personal meeting,” the U.S. statement didn’t mention that possibility.

The positive tone contrasted with a chilly meeting that Putin had earlier Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the two clashed over Ukraine, human rights and election meddling.

A senior Russian lawmaker, Konstantin Kosachyov, said Putin’s conversation with Trump showed that both countries are moving toward a “constructive” phase in their relationship, according to the state news service Tass.

‘Destabilizing Behavior’

Yet any steps Trump takes to establish closer ties with Putin will be constrained by pressure from Republican and Democratic members of Congress who are pushing for a harder line toward Russia over its role in the U.S. election, support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and interference in Ukraine.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Tuesday urged their colleagues to take “real action” against Russia to punish the country for its “destabilizing behavior and counter its malign influence.”

“Now is not the time to send a signal to Russia that all is forgotten or forgiven,” McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.

At the same time, multiple U.S. probes investigating possible links between Trump aides and Russian officials continue. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia hacked into Democratic emails and arranged for them to be leaked during last year’s presidential campaign in an effort to damage candidate Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, help Trump win the presidency.

“The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election,” Trump wrote on Twitter late Tuesday after his discussion with Putin.

Missile Attack

The Trump-Putin call was the first between the leaders since the U.S. missile assault on Syria, which was a response to a chemical weapons attack the Trump administration says was launched by Assad’s forces. The Syrian government and its Russian allies rejected the accusations.

The U.S. president told Putin that he would send a representative to Russian-sponsored talks over Syria taking place in Kazakhstan on May 3-4. In what could be a signal of improving ties, the State Department plans to send Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Putin and Trump also discussed what the U.S. called the “very dangerous” situation on the Korean peninsula, with the Russian president calling for restraint and reduction of tensions.

The call, the third between the leaders since Trump took office in January, was “businesslike and constructive,” according to the Kremlin statement. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters it was a “very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.”

Security Zones

On Syria, Trump and Putin discussed the possibility of creating “safe zones” to relieve that country’s humanitarian crisis, both governments said in their separate statements.

Putin is pushing a plan to create security zones and deploy peacekeepers in Syria -- possibly including Russian forces -- to enforce a truce brokered in late 2016 by Russia, Iran and Turkey as he tries to find a resolution to a conflict that began more than six years ago.

“Without the participation of a country such as the U.S., it’s impossible to resolve this problem effectively,” Putin said after the talks with Merkel in Sochi. “We will continue to be in contact with our American partners and we hope to reach an understanding on joint steps in this important and sensitive field.”

While Assad managed to turn the tide of the war in his favor after Russia started an air campaign in Syria in September 2015, continued fighting between his forces and rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies stands in the way of a political settlement. The conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and sent millions more fleeing.

Putin’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, presented the plan to set up four buffer zones manned by troops from Russia, Iran and Turkey and possibly other forces at a meeting with anti-Assad groups last week in Ankara, according to Yahya al-Aridi, a senior opposition representative.

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams

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