Pentagon & Congress

Russia: Damascus must agree to U.S. concept for Syria safe zones

MOSCOW — Russia is open for dialogue with the United States on safe zones in Syria but believes that any such initiative needs to be coordinated with the Syrian government, Moscow's top diplomat said Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he had briefly discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when they met in Germany last week. He added that Tillerson told him the concept was still being worked out.

President Donald Trump's praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his promise to improve relations with Russia and jointly fight the Islamic State group in Syria have raised Kremlin expectations of a possible thaw with Washington. Ties between the U.S. and Russia have been badly strained over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and other issues.

Trump also has floated the idea of safe zones as a substitute for resettling refugees in the United States and elsewhere around the globe.

Lavrov noted that Russia will wait for the U.S. to spell it out.

"We believe that any such initiatives concerning the territory of Syria need to be coordinated with the Syrian government; otherwise it would be hard to implement them," he said at a news conference.

"Having described our understanding of what we can talk about, we are waiting for clarifications from Washington," Lavrov said. "We are also ready to discuss other proposals concerning our cooperation in Syria."

The Kremlin long pushed President Barack Obama's administration for joint action against the Islamic State group in Syria, but Washington has ruled it out because of Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Obama administration pondered the idea of no-fly zones in Syria to protect civilians from Syrian government airstrikes. An air campaign waged by Moscow in Syria since September 2015 raised the threat that any U.S. attempt to enforce such zones could trigger a military confrontation with Russian forces.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said in remarks carried Wednesday by Russian news agencies that Putin and Trump discussed possible cooperation on fighting terrorism, along with economic issues, in a Jan. 28 phone call. He called the conversation "quite substantive," but added that Moscow and Washington haven't yet discussed preparations for a possible meeting of the two presidents.

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