Russia urges Trump to help fix Syria, Libya crises amid setbacks
March 3, 2017 9:08 AM
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, look for survivors amidst the debris following reported government airstrikes on the Syrian town of Ariha, in the northwestern province of Idlib, on Feb. 27.
Sergei Ilnitsky/pool photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin
By Henry Meyer / Bloomberg News
Russia is urging President Donald Trump to help it resolve conflicts in Syria and Libya, where the Kremlin is finding it tough going after seizing the initiative in a bid to act as a leading power in the region.
“We would like to see an active U.S. role” in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in an interview in Geneva. “The United States is one of the most important players here. “
Russia is ready to work with the U.S. in Libya, Gatilov said, even as the Kremlin has shown frustration at Trump’s failure so far to make good on his promise to mount a joint fight against Islamic State.
Russia has backed Khalifa Haftar, a powerful eastern military commander, saying he must have a role in the Libyan leadership. It hosted his rival, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who’s recognized by the United Nations, for talks on Thursday in Moscow as it seeks to broker a solution.
Russia’s growing role in Libya comes after it mounted a push to end Syria’s civil war following successful military intervention in support of President Bashar Assad against mostly Islamist rebels, as it seeks to rebuild Soviet-era influence in the Middle East and wider region. But the Kremlin has discovered it needs U.S. help to succeed.
“We are interested in stabilizing the situation in Libya and Syria but we need to cooperate with the U.S. in this field,” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a senior fellow at the Kremlin-linked Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.
Russia’s hopes of an entente with the U.S. have met with disappointment as the Trump administration faces a continued storm in Washington over alleged Kremlin interference in the election.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday there has been “no movement” on anti-terrorism cooperation with the U.S. and no substantive contacts about Syria.
Russia this week fought to keep U.N.-led peace negotiations on Syria on track. The Kremlin is trying to advance a political settlement to secure an exit strategy for its Syrian military campaign, but is struggling to reconcile this goal with the interests of its ally Assad and his other main patron Iran.
A cease-fire brokered in December by Russia and Turkey, a key rebel backer, is holding shakily. Russia also needs to ensure the U.S. and its allies help pay for the costly future post-war reconstruction of Syria, a senior Western diplomat said.
The conflict has killed at least 300,000 people, sent millions more fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe, and allowed Islamic State to seize a swath of territory from which to wage global attacks. While Trump has previously called for an alliance with Russia to fight the jihadists, he’s also branded Iran as the “No. 1 terrorist” threat, putting himself at odds with the Kremlin.
Russia “strongly believes” that Iran should have a role in fighting terrorism and would welcome it if Trump cooperated with Assad in defeating Islamic State, Gatilov said.
In Libya, where the collapse in order has allowed Islamic State to claim a foothold though it’s now on the defensive after losing its last major holdout in December, the path to an agreement between Russia and the U.S. may be easier.
“If there will be any common ground for cooperation with the United States in bringing stability in Libya, of course we would be open to all contacts,” he said.
In addition to Russia, Haftar’s also backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. “For us, General Haftar is the real power and he shouldn’t be ignored in the political process,” Gatilov said.
A one-time ally of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Haftar, 73, controls a large swath of Libya’s territory and most of its oil fields.
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