US to Russia: Syria Military Cooperation Not Guaranteed

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey in August 2015, en route to an air strike against terrorist forces in Syria. (US Air Force/Krystal Ardrey)
An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey in August 2015, en route to an air strike against terrorist forces in Syria. (US Air Force/Krystal Ardrey)

The United States warned Russia on Friday that potential military cooperation envisioned by a cease-fire deal in Syria will not happen, unless humanitarian aid begins to flow into Aleppo and other besieged communities. The warning came as President Barack Obama's top national security aides continued to wrangle over whether -- and how -- to cooperate militarily with the Russians, in the event those conditions are met.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a telephone call that Moscow must persuade the Syrian government to get the aid moving, or else a joint facility to coordinate attacks on terrorist groups and share intelligence will not be set up, the State Department said. Kerry called the delays in assistance to Aleppo "repeated" and "unacceptable" and said Russia must press Syrian President Bashar Assad to allow deliveries.

Kerry "emphasized that the United States expects Russia to use its influence on the Assad regime to allow UN humanitarian convoys to reach Aleppo and other areas in need," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "The secretary made clear that the United States will not establish the Joint Implementation Center with Russia unless and until the agreed terms for humanitarian access are met."

Obama discussed the cease-fire agreement and the broader campaign against the Islamic State group with his national security team Friday. The White House said he expressed "deep concern" that Syria continues to block the delivery of humanitarian aid, despite decreased violence across the country.

The president emphasized that the U.S. will not proceed with the next steps in the arrangement with Russia "until we see seven continuous days of reduced violence and sustained humanitarian access," the White House said.

The agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached last week calls for sustained delivery of humanitarian aid, along with a decrease in violence, as a requirement for the military cooperation to target Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked groups. The arrangements are very detailed on the mechanics of ending violence in Aleppo and opening up a key artery to the city for humanitarian deliveries. The agreement has not been made public but officials familiar with it have told The Associated Press it contains a highly technical series of requirements for both Assad's government and opposition forces.

These include precise calculations, in meters, on how the sides would pull back from a key artery into Aleppo and where they would have to redeploy weaponry. A main focus is on ensuring rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained humanitarian access to all people in need.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's description of the Kerry-Lavrov call said the two men had focused on implementation of the agreement that they reached a week ago in Geneva, according to Russian news agencies.

The ministry said Lavrov had once again called for the United States to make the agreement public and have the United Nations Security Council endorse it. He also restated Moscow's demand that the U.S. use its influence with opposition forces it supports to distance themselves from al-Qaida-linked fighters.

The Security Council had been scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the agreement, but the session was cancelled at the last minute because the U.S. did not want to make the details public, according to Russian and U.S. officials.

Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said there was no point in briefing the council if the U.S. did not want to say exactly what was in the deal.

A U.S. official said the session was canceled because the Russians were trying to force the U.S. make the cease-fire deal public and Washington would "not compromise operational security." The official wasn't authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity.

Meanwhile, a senior Russian military official said Moscow would help ensure the cease-fire in Syria for another three days, but warned the United States to press the rebels to end violations of the truce.

Lt. Gen. Viktor Poznikhir of the Russian military's General Staff declared readiness to extend the U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire for another 72 hours, adding that Moscow expects Washington to take "resolute action" to end violations by the U.S.-backed opposition units. He said the Syrian army has fully complied with the truce that went into force Monday, while the opposition units have violated it 144 times since then.

The Sept. 9 agreement also sets out a broad outline of how the military cooperation facility would be set up if violence is reduced and aid delivered over the course of seven continuous days.

The Pentagon, however, has serious reservations about coordinating air strikes and sharing intelligence with Russia and has raised objections on numerous grounds, according to U.S. officials.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest downplayed the significance of divisions between the State and Defense departments on the wisdom of deepening military cooperation with Russia. But he confirmed Obama's meeting Friday with his national security advisers, including Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The White House said the meeting was scheduled before the cease-fire deal was announced.

"The president didn't staff his national security team with 'yes' men and 'yes' women ... the president expects to receive advice based on their differing perspectives" and expertise, Earnest said. He added that once Obama has made a decision, he expects his team to execute that strategy. "The president has no doubt that will happen," he said.


Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.

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