Secretary of State John F. Kerry wrangled for hours with senior Russian officials in Moscow on Friday, discussing a plan that includes first-time coordination between the U.S. and Russia on airstrikes targeting militant groups operating in Syria.
Late Friday, amid distractions over an unfolding military coup in NATO ally Turkey, Kerry announced agreement on a series of steps that he said, “if implemented in good faith,” could ease the Syrian civil war, which has claimed nearly a half-million lives.
But he declined to specify those steps, saying “they need more work in order to work” and that publicizing them now would expose them to “spoilers.”
“The results will not be tomorrow or the next day. They will not be immediate,” Kerry told reporters. “But our patience is not limitless.”
The fraught effort comes as the Obama administration becomes increasingly exasperated with the failure of Russia to cooperate in the broader goals of ending the war in Syria, getting rid of President Bashar Assad and stopping gains by Islamic State and its allies. In fact, Russia’s actions have largely shored up Assad and given him an upper hand in the fight, while continuing deadly attacks on civilians.
U.S. officials have made clear that what they view as the Russia-backed Syrian regime’s repeated violations of a partial ceasefire, which Kerry helped negotiate earlier this year, are undermining all diplomatic efforts.
But entering into closer military action with Russia poses a host of risks that have alarmed Syria watchers inside and outside of the administration. Instead of easing violence against civilians, which Kerry has said he hopes to achieve, it could have the reverse effect of unleashing even deadlier attacks.
“We have some homework to do, but there is a possibility ... of actually making some further progress,” Kerry said Friday during a break between meetings. “We still have some gaps, and my hope is that in the course of this conversation and work right now we can close those gaps and find a positive way forward.”
Earlier, a State Department official indicated that there was tough going in the talks, which started Thursday night when Kerry met President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. Kerry complained to Putin about “repeated violations” of the so-called cessation of hostilities and emphasized “that absent concrete, near-term steps, diplomatic efforts could not continue indefinitely,” department spokesman John Kirby said.
Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, did agree on one thing: Thursday night’s massacre in Nice, France, underscored the urgency in fighting extremists in Syria.
“I think people all over the world are looking to us and waiting for us to find a faster and more tangible way [to show] that everything 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 and depraved approach to life and death,” Kerry said.
Kerry is proposing the U.S. share intelligence and targeting data with Russia and coordinate bombing missions against Islamic State and Al Nusra Front jihadist forces operating in Syria. U.S. and Russian air forces would maintain their separate headquarters but would share a joint command center in Amman, Jordan. Currently, the two nations coordinate air operations only to maintain the safety of each other’s aircraft, not in terms of targeting or intelligence on locations of rebel positions.
Nusra is the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, but many of its forces fight against Assad alongside other rebel groups that the U.S. supports. Despite the partial ceasefire in effect since February, Russia and the Syrian regime have made no distinction, bombing all the groups as “terrorists.”
The fear is that if the U.S. begins coordinating bombing runs with the Russians, Americans could be drawn into attacks on the very groups it supports. Kerry and other administration officials have insisted that Moscow would be made to pledge not to hit those groups, but others doubt Putin would keep his word.
“We’ve always made clear that we would welcome ... a military contribution from Russia, as long as they were focused on ISIL and Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen them devote too much of their attention to using their military might to prop up the Assad regime.”
Even as Kerry was arriving in Moscow, reports from Syria quoted residents in the Kafr Hamra village area near Aleppo as saying about 30 airstrikes by Russian warplanes dropped 10 barrel bombs and 130 shells. Information on casualties and damage was not immediately available.
The cessation of hostilities, in addition to attempting to end slaughter, was aimed at allowing desperately needed food, medicine and other humanitarian aid into besieged enclaves. Its breakdown led to the collapse, at least temporarily, of political talks between pro- and anti-Assad parties aimed at a “transition” to a new government.
Nicholas Heras, an expert on the Middle East at the Center for a New American Security, said that for Washington to join military operations with Russia now would be a “betrayal” of the last five years of U.S. support for armed opposition factions in Syria. “There is a wide chasm that is not easily bridged” between U.S. and Russian goals in Syria, and even in their definitions of who the opposition groups are, Heras said.
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5:20 p.m.: This story was updated with Kerry’s remarks late Friday.
This story was originally published at 12:45 p.m.