US, Russia agree on 'steps' in Syria, but won't say what
MOSCOW (AP) -- The United States and Russia agreed Friday on new steps they said could make a difference in Syria's relentless civil war, hinting at an improbable military partnership that has been the subject of intense negotiation.
Underscoring the extreme fragility of their effort, neither of the country's top diplomats spelled out what form the new steps would take.
"The results will not be tomorrow or the next day," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after they had met for more than 10 hours in a Russian government villa in Moscow.
Both sides stressed that closer cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was critical to ending a conflict that has killed as many as a half-million people, contributed to a global migration crisis and spawned the international expansion of the Islamic State group.
Each cited Thursday night's attack in France as a reason for why peace in Syria is essential. But Russia backs Syrian President Bashar Assad; the U.S. supports rebels fighting against him.
Kerry struck a conciliatory note, saying both Assad's forces and the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, have been responsible for a deteriorating truce. He said other opposition forces, too, have sometimes been culpable in violations.
The new U.S.-Russian coordination would address both Assad's military and Nusra, Kerry said.
"We have agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems," he told reporters. "It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce the violence and help create the space for a genuine and credible political transition."
Similarly cryptic, Lavrov spoke of "increased efficiency" in U.S.-Russian efforts.
The Moscow talks came after a leaked proposal showed the U.S. offering Russia a broad new military partnership against IS and Nusra. Several conditions would apply, including Russia committing to grounding Syria's bombers and starting a long-sought political transition process.
The eight-page proposal, which The Washington Post published on its website, included talk of intelligence and targeting sharing, and even joint bombing operations. It is a pact Moscow long had wanted, but the Obama administration resisted. And much of Washington is wary about working too closely with Russia.
Such a deal would undercut months of U.S. criticism of Russia's military actions in Syria, and put the United States alongside Assad's chief international backer, despite years of American demands for the Syrian leader to leave power.
Russia would get what it has wanted since intervening in Syria on Assad's behalf last September: leadership of an international anti-terrorism alliance.
Whereas Kerry decried the Syrian government's bombing of moderate opposition forces and civilian targets, Lavrov focused his attention elsewhere. Regarding Nusra, he said, "nothing can justify terrorist attacks."
The Obama administration has few alternatives to working with Russia.
Suggestions of U.S. force don't carry much weight, given the unfulfilled threats throughout the war. There were declarations five years ago that Assad's days were "numbered," and President Barack Obama vowed a military response if chemical weapons were used, then backed down in 2013.
The proposed U.S.-Russian "Joint Implementation Group" would be based near Amman, Jordan. Besides sharing intelligence and targeting information, the former Cold War foes "should coordinate procedures to permit integrated operations" if the U.S. and Russia decide such operations are in their interests, the leaked document said.
The proposal would address one of the most persistent problems with enforcing a cease-fire in Syria: the Nusra Front. The group is engaged in a variety of local alliances with other rebel groups the U.S. and its Arab allies want shielded by the cessation of hostilities. Nusra's fighters are often embedded with such groups on the battlefield or move between various militant formations.
For that reason, the U.S. has almost entirely avoided bombing Nusra targets in recent months. Russia hasn't hesitated. As Russia has taken out Nusra forces, the U.S. says Russia also has killed hundreds of moderate, anti-Assad fighters and civilians, undermining chances for peaceful diplomacy.
"Nowhere is there a greater hotbed or incubator for these terrorists than in Syria," Kerry told Lavrov in front of journalists earlier in the day. "And I think people all over the world are looking to us and waiting for us to find a faster and more tangible way of them feeling that everything that is possible is being done to end this terrorist scourge and to unite the world in the most comprehensive efforts possible to fight back against their nihilistic, depraved approach to life and death."