US, Russian militaries hold unprecedented talks on Syria

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior American and Russian military leaders met for an unprecedented, face-to-face session somewhere in the Middle East this week to discuss the growing tensions in the competing battles to retake one of […]

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US, Russia reach deal on Syria cease-fire

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The United States and Russia have reached agreement on a cease-fire in southwest Syria, three US officials said on Friday as President Donald Trump held his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The deal marks a new level of involvement for the US in trying to resolve Syria’s civil war. Although details about the agreement and how it will be implemented weren’t immediately available, the cease-fire is set to take effect Sunday at noon Damascus time, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the cease-fire publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jordan and Israel also are part of the agreement, one of the officials said. The two US allies both share a border with the southern part of Syria and have been concerned about violence from Syria’s civil war spilling over the border.

The deal is separate from “de-escalation zones” that were to be created under a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran earlier this year. The US was not a part of that deal. Follow-up talks this week in Astana, Kazakhstan, to finalize a cease-fire in those zones failed to reach agreement.

Previous cease-fires in Syria have collapsed or failed to reduce violence for long, and it was unclear whether this deal would be any better.

Earlier in the week, Syria’s military had said it was halting combat operations in the south of Syria for four days, in advance of a new round of Russia-sponsored talks in Astana. That move covered southern provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida.

Syria’s government briefly extended that unilateral cease-fire, which is now set to expire Saturday — a day before the US and Russian deal would take effect.

Open-ended agreement 

The new agreement to be announced Friday will be open-ended, one US official said, describing it as part of broader US discussions with Russia on trying to lower violence in the war-ravaged country. Officials said the US and Russia were still working out the details as Trump and Putin concluded their more than two-hour meeting on Friday.

The US and Russia have been backing opposing sides in Syria’s war, with Moscow supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and Washington supporting rebels who have been fighting Assad. Both the US and Russia oppose the ISIS group in Syria.

The US has been wary of letting Iran gain influence in Syria — a concern shared by Israel and Jordan, neither of which wants Iranian-aligned troops amassing near their territories. A US-brokered deal could help the Trump administration retain more of a say over who fills the power vacuum left behind as the ISIS is routed from additional territory in Syria.

Though US and Russian officials had been discussing a potential deal for some time, it didn’t reach fruition until the run-up to Trump’s meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in Germany, officials said.

High on the agenda

Before Trump’s meeting with Putin — his first with the Russian leader — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that Syria’s civil war would be high on the agenda. Tillerson said in a statement before departing for Germany for the meeting that the US remained open to cooperating with Russia through “joint mechanisms” to lower violence in Syria, potentially including no-fly zones.

“If our two countries work together to establish stability on the ground, it will lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria’s political future,” Tillerson said on Wednesday.

Moscow reacted angrily when the US downed a Syrian jet last week after it dropped bombs near the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces conducting operations against the ISIS group. Russia warned its military would track aircraft from the US-led coalition as potential targets over Syria and suspended a hotline intended to avoid midair incidents.

Source: AP

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US, Russia discuss Syria ceasefire

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed by telephone on Monday the need to cement the ceasefire regime in Syria, in particular on the basis of peace talks conducted in the Kazakh capital Astana.

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that Lavrov had urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict.

Russia is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Lavrov and Tillerson agreed to continue contacts, including on their bilateral agenda, the statement said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump have not yet met since Trump took office in January.

Source: Reuters

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US, Russia discuss de-escalation zone for southwest Syria

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The United States and Russia are quietly holding talks on creating a “de-escalation zone” in southwestern Syria, Western diplomats and regional officials said, but could face fierce opposition from Iran.

The Russian and U.S. special envoys for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev and Michael Ratney, and other officials have met at least twice in the Jordanian capital Amman in the past two weeks and will talk again soon, the officials and diplomats said.

The talks are at an early stage of discussing the boundaries of the proposed de-escalation zone in Deraa province, on the border with Jordan, and Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, they said.

Diplomats say the talks could represent a major new attempt by Washington and Moscow, Syria’s main foreign backer, to reach an understanding on how to end six years of conflict which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, estimates has killed close to half a million people.

Iran, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in May to create four de-escalation zones in Syria. But the United States wants no role in the southwest, Russia’s ally in the war, the diplomats said.

Washington has misgivings about the Astana talks and wants to forge a bilateral understanding with Moscow in an area of strategic interest to the United States and its allies, Jordan and Israel.

“The Americans are talking to the Russians and proposing a deconfliction zone outside the Astana process without the Iranians and their proxies,” said one senior diplomat.

The United States is proposing a de-escalation zone covering areas held by both rebel and government forces that could eventually turn into a safe area, the envoys and officials said.

“The two sides are in the process of drafting its borders… and which outside forces will be on the ground. But there are many flaws on how to implement it,” said a regional intelligence official who is familiar with the talks but is not authorized to speak publicly.

Time may be of the essence. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, is expanding its foothold in the southwest and dozens of raids this week by the Syrian army and new troop deployments by Hezbollah in Deraa city were intended to pre-empt or wreck any agreement, a Western intelligence source said.

The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A U.S. State Department official said: “We have nothing to announce regarding reports of discussions about southern Syria. The United States remains committed to supporting a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict, one which can bring about a more representative and peaceful Syria, free of terrorism.”

Under the Astana accord, de-escalation was envisaged as the halt of hostilities between government forces and opposition groups and the creation of conditions for humanitarian access, medical assistance, the return of displaced civilians to their homes and restoration of damaged infrastructure.

Safe zones should be guaranteed by all parties to a conflict.

U.S. officials have told the Russian negotiators that the Syrian army and Iranian-backed troops are exploiting the Astana agreement to free up additional troops for other battles, the source familiar with the negotiations said.

The United States has taken a tough stance against Tehran under President Donald Trump. But Iran and allied militias are integral to groups supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Although Trump has voiced support for safe zones in Syria, Washington opposes Iran’s involvement as a guarantor of the de-escalation zones set out in the Astana accord, and regards Assad’s track record in upholding previous agreements as poor.

In the talks with Moscow, Washington has proposed a halt in military offensives by Western-vetted rebels who control swathes of Deraa and Quneitra, a regional intelligence official said. Jordan’s role in the deal is important because of its leverage over rebels in that area.

Deraa and Quneitra are home to tens of thousands of people and form a center of the insurgency against Assad. They are a potential launchpad for rebel attacks on the Syrian capital Damascus, 40 miles (64 km) to the north.

U.S. enthusiasm to push the deal depends on Russia forcing the Iran-backed militias to leave the area. “Iran and its proxies have to be out of this zone. This is key to the deal being proposed,” he said.

Regional tensions are on the rise and the warfare in southern Syria has worsened, pitting Western-backed rebels around the Tanf base near the border with Iraq against Syria’s army and militias backed by Iran.

There are doubts in the West that Russia can rein in the growing involvement in the region of Iran and its allies, two senior diplomats familiar with the talks said.

There are other difficulties. Jordan wants a deal that keeps the Deraa front quiet and eases the plight of civilians under the threat of army bombardment. But it has rejected a Russian proposal for its troops to police the proposed de-confliction zone, another regional source said.

Source: Reuters 

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US, Russia must agree on Syria: UN envoy

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The United Nations peace envoy for Syria on Wednesday urged the United States and Russia to agree on a way forward to end the war in Syria and pave the way for a “real negotiation.”

Special envoy Staffan de Mistura told the UN Security Council that he was ready to convene a new round of talks in May but that US-Russian cooperation was needed.

His appeal came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in talks in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov following US missile strikes in Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack.

The two countries have “serious differences” but also a “common interest” in ending the six-year war that has killed 320,000 people, De Mistura said.

“They must find a way to work together to stabilize the situation in a deliberate, realistic and concerted way in support of the political process,” he said.

The United Nations is ready to lead a “real negotiation” on a “package for an orderly, mapped-out, credible and irreversible, agreed political transition” to end the war, he added.

The council was meeting ahead of a vote later in the day on a draft resolution demanding that the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation of the suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun.

Russia is expected to veto the measure — which would mark the eighth time that Moscow has used its veto power to block Security Council action directed at its ally, Syria.

“Let us view this moment of crisis — and it is a moment of crisis — as a watershed and an opportunity for a new level of seriousness in the search for a political solution,” said De Mistura.

Source: AFP

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US, Russia aim to prevent clashes between Turkey and Syrian Kurds: official

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The US-led coalition is sending more armored vehicles to the north of Manbij city near the Sajur river in order to deter hostile acts between the the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkey, and to ‘keep the focus on ISIS’, a coalition spokesperson said on Saturday.

Also, a Russian aid convoy arrived to western Manbij for the same goal.

“[The US-led] coalition has taken this deliberate action to reassure Coalition members and partner forces, deter aggression and keep focus on defeating ISIS,” Air Force Col John L. Dorrian Spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) said.

“[The coalition] has been active in and around Manbij since Summer of 2016, when the city was liberated from Daesh [ISIS],” he tweeted.

The US-led coalition has also “increased force presence in, around Manbij to deter hostile acts, enhance governance & ensure there’s no persistent YPG presence,” according to Colonel Dorrian.

While the Americans are positioned north of Manbij, a Russian aid convoy arrived west of Manbij on Saturday, with pictures shown online of a fighter of the SDF-linked Manbij Military Council (MMC) hosting a Russian flag.

This comes after an agreement between Russia and the Kurds, to hand over some villages to the Syrian government to create a buffer zone in order to prevent clashes between the Turkish-led Euphrates Shield operation and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“We have noticed and observed and are aware of the fact that these humanitarian convoys sponsored by the regime [of President Bashar al-Assad] and Russia have been moving into Manbij, and that they have some armoured equipment with them,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis was quoted by the Turkish government outlet TRT.

“All I would say is we just continue to want to see all parties on ground focus [on Daesh],” Davis said, adding that Russia had informed the US about the convoys ahead of time through a special hotline.

On Friday, heavy clashes continued between the SDF and Turkey-backed fighters despite the presence of foreign forces in Manbij. Also on Saturday, clashes took place west of Manbij, according to local sources.

Turkey-backed Islamist rebels started to attack Manbij after liberating the town of al-Bab from ISIS on 23 February.

On Saturday evening, the Turkish army targeted with heavy weapons the village of Qara Baba close to Rajo near the Kurdish Afrin District in northwestern Syria, a local source told ARA News. It was not immediately clear whether the bombardment caused any casualties.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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