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Diplomatic exchanges suggest deal between Trump and Putin about Syria

Intense diplomatic activity between US and Russia suggest an understanding has been reached between the Trump administration and the Kremlin over Syria with the US supporting the Russian initiative on 'de-escalation areas' and Russia switching the deconfliction hotline with the US military back on.

Alongside the agreement in Astana between Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up ‘de-escalation areas’ in Syria, it is clear that diplomatic contacts between the US and Russia about Syria have intensified significantly in recent days, with the White House and the Kremlin engaging in the first positive interactions they have had since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.

The talks kicked off with a telephone conversation between Presidents Putin and Trump on Tuesday 2nd May 2017.  At the time international attention was focused on the situation in the Korean Peninsula.  It is now clear that the main focus of the conversation between Putin and Trump was actually Syria.  Here is the Kremlin’s summary of this part of the conversation

A wide range of current issues regarding the two countries’ cooperation in the international arena was discussed, with an emphasis on future coordination of Russian and US actions to fight international terrorism in the context of the Syrian crisis.

It was agreed to bolster the dialogue between the heads of the two nations’ foreign policy agencies in an effort to find ways to stabilise the ceasefire and make it durable and manageable.

The aim is to create preconditions for launching a real settlement process in Syria. To that end, the Russian Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State shall promptly brief the countries’ leaders on any progress achieved.

(bold italics added)

This makes it clear that Putin and Trump discussed ways of ‘de-escalating’ the Syrian crisis with a view to combining forces against Jihadi terrorists ie. Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

It is now known that Putin discussed his proposal to set up the ‘de-escalation zones’ over the course of his conversation with Trump.  Trump gave his agreement, as did Turkish President Erdogan during his meeting with Putin on the following day (Wednesday 3rd May 2017).

On Thursday 4th May 2017 the representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran signed the memorandum setting up the ‘de-escalation areas’ in Astana (the Russian Foreign Ministry has now officially published its text, though it is the same one that I have discussed previously).

On the following day, Friday 5th May 2017, there was a telephone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during which the main topic of discussion was the conflict of Syria and implementation of the proposal for ‘de-escalation areas’.

The day after, Saturday 6th May 2017, the General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, and General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a telephone conversation to discuss implementation of the memorandum.  This conversation between the highest ranking officers of the Russian and US militaries resumes the dialogue between the US and Russian militaries Gerasimov and Dunford began with each other in February in Baku.

Following the telephone conversation between Gerasimov and Dunford on 6th May 2017, the Russians switched back on the deconfliction hotline between the US and Russian militaries that the Russians switched off following the US missile attack on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base on 6th April 2017.  Earlier Russian media reports which I discussed previously which claimed that the deconfliction hotline had been switched on previously were clearly wrong.  TASS has provided a summary of the Russian Defence Ministry’s account of this conversation

Russia’s Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford confirmed in their phone conversation the readiness to reinstate the memorandum of understanding on safe flights over Syria and to draw up more measures so as to avoid any conflicts, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday.

“Syria was in focus of the talks in the light of the agreements, reached in Astana on May 4 this year, on establishing de-escalation zones in some regions of Syria,” the ministry said in a statement. The top generals “confirmed readiness to re-assume in full the parties’ obligations under the Russian-US memorandum of understanding on air safety and prevention of incidents in Syria’s air space and besides, to continue work on additional measures so as to avoid conflict situations during (military) operations against ISIS (so-called Islamic State) and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Besides, the conversation held at the US request highlighted “other issues on bilateral agenda” except Syria, the ministry said.

“The interlocutors agreed to maintain regular contacts,” the defense ministry said.

On May 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to set up four de-escalation zones in Syria. Under the memorandum signed at the talks in Astana, combat operations, including flights by military aircraft, are outlawed. The memorandum was concluded for six months with chances of automatic prolongation for another six months. Russia’s Defense Ministry said earlier that the fight against Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups (outlawed in Russia – TASS) would be continued inside and around those zones.
(bold italics added)
The highlighted words may suggest that there was a limited resumption of use of the hotline earlier, and that some form of limited cooperation between the US and Russian militaries in the fight against Al-Qaeda (Jabhat Al-Nusra) and ISIS is under discussion.
All of this suggests that some sort of understanding between the Trump administration and the Russians about Syria has been reached.  The Russian assertion that US aircraft would not fly over the ‘de-escalation areas’ is probably a part of this.
It is too early to be sure, but with the rise in influence in Washington of Rex Tillerson, who over recent weeks has finally asserted himself both as President Trump’s most important foreign policy adviser and as the chief proponent in Washington of a realist foreign policy, it may be that after the setback of the US missile strike against Al-Shayrat air base the deal that appeared to be in the works between the Kremlin and the Trump administration over Syria – with the US abandoning regime change in Syria in return for Russia’s help in the fight against Jihadi terrorism in Syria – is back on track.
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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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