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Insight - Russian suspicions of U.S.

motives in Syria make cooperation

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad alks in Adra al-!malia" after taking control of the area from re#el fighters
Septem#er $%" $&'(.
YORK/WASHINGTON Sun Sep 28, 2014
)Reuters* - +he United States and Russia see Islamic State as a common enemy #ut are
failing to overcome deep mutual distrust and agree on ho to tackle the threat
together" making any role for ,osco in the U.S.-led campaign unlikely" say U.S.
-ifferences #eteen the former .old /ar foes are stark" say the officials. ,osco
suspects /ashington's ulterior motive is removal of its ally" Syria's President Bashar
al-Assad. /ashington refuses to consider orking together as long as ,osco insists
that U.S. strikes need Syrian and U.0. approval.
-iplomatic efforts" from high-level talks at the United 0ations to informal contacts in
,osco" have failed to resolve those misgivings" hich echo #roader pro#lems in U.S.-
Russian relations" already at a post-.old /ar lo over the crisis in Ukraine" American
officials say.
1+he main o#stacle to Russian participation is ,osco's position that 'this can only #e
taken ith permission of the Syrian government or through the U.0."' hich is not
something e accept"1 a senior U.S. administration official told Reuters on the
condition of anonymity.
1If Russia thinks that someho they're going to gain some kind of shift in the U.S.
policy" that is not going to happen.1
+hough Russia has no sympathy for Islamic State militants ho have sei2ed large
tracts of territory in Ira3 and Syria and face U.S.-led air strikes in #oth countries"
,osco's relationship ith Syria forms a difficult #ackdrop to talks over any potential
Russia's a#sence from the anti-Islamic State coalition complicates /ashington's
calculus" reducing the possi#ility of U.S. leverage over the flo of Russian arms into
-amascus as the U.S.-led campaign moves forard ith air strikes in Syria and arms
anti-Assad re#els.
,osco" hich has #een trying to raise its diplomatic and economic influence in the
,iddle 4ast" has #een a ma5or provider of conventional eapons to Syria" giving Assad
crucial support during the nearly four-year civil ar and #locking ider /estern
attempts to punish him ith sanctions for the use of force against civilians.
/ashington" meanhile" #acks moderate Syrian re#els ho are seeking to topple
Assad and are likely to play a central role in any future ground campaign inside Syria.
+he U.S. government accuses Assad of idespread human rights a#uses and says it ill
never ask for Assad's permission for its air strikes.
/hile this all #ut rules out military colla#oration in Syria against Islamic State" also
knon as ISI6" U.S. officials still see potential for common cause on another front7
aiding Baghdad's #attle to roll #ack Islamic State's gains in Ira3. But there" too" 5oint
U.S.-Russian action appears out of the 3uestion.
1+he U.S. and Russia share an interest in defeating the kind of violent e8tremism that
ISI6 represents"1 a senior State -epartment official said.
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Russian sensitivity a#out Assad's fate figured prominently in private discussions
#eteen ,osco and /ashington in recent eeks" say U.S. officials ith direct
knoledge of those talks. After President Barack !#ama announced air strikes against
Islamic State forces in Ira3 in August" mem#ers of his administration #egan signaling
to ,osco that Syria as ne8t" the officials said.
+hey said Secretary of State =ohn >erry conveyed the message to Russian ?oreign
,inister Sergei 6avrov in Paris on Sept. '% on the sidelines of a conference on Ira3"
attended #y U.0. Security .ouncil permanent mem#ers" 4uropean and Ara# states"
and representatives of the 4U" Ara# 6eague and United 0ations. All pledged to help
the government in Baghdad.
At that meeting" >erry offered assurances that the United States ould not directly
target Assad or his forces" the officials said. ,eeting at the United 0ations on
/ednesday" 5ust days after the start of the U.S.-led air assault in Syria" the to again
discussed the conflict.
1It didn't change anything"1 a senior U.S. official said.
At a nes conference at the United 0ations on ?riday" 6avrov 3uestioned the legality
of the air campaign and also gave the United States a 1e-told-you-so1 message a#out
the conse3uences of U.S. policy in the region.
1/e are fighting against terrorism consistently" constantly" not 5ust hen someone
announces a coalition"1 6avrov said.
,osco had long arned of the potential #lo#ack of U.S. support for the anti-Assad
opposition in Syria's civil ar. Plans to e8pand American training and arming of
moderate re#els have only heightened those concerns.
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-espite that" Russia could gain from any U.S. success against Islamic State" hich has
#een 5oined #y fighters from Russia's predominantly ,uslim 0orth .aucasus" a region
here militants age daily violence to esta#lish an Islamic state.
+he #loodshed there is rooted in to ars that ,osco fought ith .hechen
separatists after the Soviet Union's fall and these fighters could pose a security risk for
Russia if they return to the 0orth .aucasus.
Among to do2en individuals and groups identified #y the U.S. State -epartment on
Sept. $( as foreign terrorists or terrorist facilitators as a .hechen militant group"
=aish al-,uha5ireen al-Ansar. +he designation" hich ena#les /ashington to free2e
assets and #lock financial transactions" as seen as #enefiting ,osco.
But U.S. officials say /ashington has made no specific re3uest to ,osco to 5oin the
coalition or ork together in the fight against Islamic State. 0or has Russia offered to
do so" they said. But they acknoledge ,osco's potential importance in any
campaign in the ,iddle 4ast.
1+here's no dou#t that Russia is a key player on Syria" on Ira3" and ill inevita#ly #e
involved in hatever e are dealing ith"1 though it remains to #e seen hat kind of
role that ill entail" the senior !#ama administration official said.
A group of U.S. and Russian foreign policy e8perts ho regularly advise their on
governments met privately in ,osco last eek" seeking common ground in the fight
against Islamic State" according to a person close to the matter.
+he Russian delegation" hich included former officials still close to the >remlin"
e8pressed interest in counterterrorism cooperation" including intelligence sharing. But
the talks encountered too much mutual distrust to agree on anything tangi#le"
the person said.
+he discussions ere held on the #asis of hat is knon as 1+rack II1 diplomacy" an
unofficial channel for international conflict resolution.
In ,osco" ?yodor 6ukyanov" editor-in-chief of the 5ournal Russia in ;lo#al Affairs"
said Russia's role in the fight against Islamic State likely ould #e limited to assisting
the Ira3i and Syrian governments. ,osco already supplies eapons to security forces
in #oth countries.
1Russia has no desire" no plan and no interest to #e part of any campaign led #y the
United States"1 said 6ukyanov" ho is also head of a >remlin foreign-policy advisory
1+he Russian vie is that all this mess to a large e8tent has #een produced #y the
reckless and cra2y policy in its invasion of Ira3"1 he said" referring to the $&&@ U.S.-led
invasion of Ira3 that as heavily critici2ed #y Russian President Aladimir Putin.
/ashington as pleased hen Russia" hich has often shielded Assad at the United
0ations" voted on /ednesday in favor of a U.S.-#acked resolution urging governments
to help stem the flo of foreign fighters to militant groups" U.S. officials said.
But ,atthe Ro5ansky" a Russia e8pert at the /ilson .enter think tank in
/ashington" said !#ama's U.0. speech the same day in hich he arned Putin of
further costs of 1aggression1 against Ukraine may have erased any goodill.
1?rom the Russian perspective" everything is linked"1 he said.
=ames ;oldgeier" a >remlinologist at American University in /ashington" said the
o#stacles to U.S.-Russia cooperation against Islamic State appear too formida#le to
overcome soon" #ut that a change of tack could come if ,osco felt an increased threat
to its on security.
1?or no" Russia9s #iggest concern is preserving hat little influence it has left in the
,iddle 4ast"B he said. CAnd that means Syria.B
)Additional reporting #y +homas ;rove in ,osco. 4diting #y =ason S2ep and =ohn
Posted #y +havam