WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is launching a fresh bid to enlist Russia as a partner in Syria despite more than a month of dashed hopes as the situation on the ground becomes more volatile and uncertain with the introduction of Turkish ground forces.
As the military picture grows more chaotic and complicated by the day, Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later this week to try to hammer out a diplomatic initiative that would see greater cooperation that could lead to a resumption in talks on a political transition.
Before talks can begin, though, U.S. officials say it is imperative that Russia use its influence with Syrian President Bashar Assad to halt attacks on moderate opposition forces, open humanitarian aid corridors, and concentrate any offensive action on the Islamic State group and other extremists not covered by what has become a largely ignored truce.
Those goals are not new, but recent developments have made achieving them even more urgent and important, according to U.S. officials. Recent developments include military operations around the city of Aleppo, the entry of Turkey into the ground war, Turkish hostility toward U.S.-backed Kurdish rebel groups and the presence of American military advisers in widening conflict zones.
Expectations are low, however, particularly given how efforts to forge a new U.S.-Russia understanding have fallen short virtually every month for the past five years. At the same time, the administration is not of one mind regarding the Russians. The Pentagon has publicly complained about getting drawn into greater cooperation with Russia even though it has been forced recently to expand communication with Moscow. Just last week the U.S. had to call for Russian help when Syrian warplanes struck in an area not far from where U.S. troops were operating on the ground.
As the administration continues to pursue a strategy of partnering with a hodgepodge of local fighters against the Islamic State group without getting pulled deeper into Syria’s civil war or rupturing relations with Turkey, Kerry will meet Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. He will press Russia for help on re-establishing the fractured nationwide truce with a focus on Aleppo and bringing food, medicine and other supplies into besieged communities.
“We want to be very measured in our expectations as we go forward into this meeting, but we believe the meeting is worth having,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said Wednesday.
Yet, the only tangible indication that the meeting is worth having seems to be that it has been scheduled. “The fact that we’ve scheduled a meeting is a good sign,” Trudeau said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Kerry and Lavrov will be meeting just days after Turkish forces allied with Syrian Arab rebels and backed by U.S. air power pushed into Syria to retake Jarablus, a border town held by Islamic State militants, which has the potential to further muddle an already confusing picture on the ground.
This move is significant as it marks NATO member Turkey’s most overt incursion into Syria. But it also puts Turkey on a path toward potential confrontation with Kurdish fighters in Syria who the United States is supporting in their fight against the Islamic State group and have been the most effective force battling IS militants in northern Syria.
The Turks are adamant that the Kurds not advance as they have a long-running fight with Kurdish insurgents on their side of the border.
And Russia is not on board. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow issued a statement expressing deep concern about Turkey’s ground incursion, saying it raises the risk of civilian casualties and the worsening of ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs.
AP national security writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.