By Karen DeYoung,
The United States and Russia have agreed to collaborate on backing a cease-fire in southwest Syria, U.S. officials said Friday.
The agreement — discussed by President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting Friday at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg — would mark the first collaborative operation between Washington and Moscow since they began backing opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, which began more than six years ago.
“This is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Hamburg with Trump, told reporters after the meeting. “We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria [where] we can continue to work together,” he said.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition fighters have been battling in and around the cities of Daraa and Quneitra in Syria’s southwest corner, escalating concerns in Jordan and Israel of increased spillover into those countries.
The Jordanian government, worried about additional flows of Syrian refugees across its already flooded border, said in an announcement that it also is a party to the deal.
Tillerson said the three governments signed a memorandum including “well-defined agreements on who will secure this area.” He did not offer details.
Israeli warplanes have struck Syrian government forces several times in the area in recent months, most recently three weeks ago in retaliation for what Israel said were 10 Syrian government “projectiles” that flew across the border into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Russian aircraft also have conducted bombing operations around Daraa in support of Syrian forces.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door discussions with Russia, said the agreement on southwestern Syria has been the subject of sporadic talks between them for months.
The officials described the U.S. role in the deal as one of restraining rebel forces and monitoring the cease-fire lines, presumably along with Jordan. They gave no indication that U.S. troops would be directly involved. The area under discussion is far from U.S. military activity against the Islamic State, in northern and central Syria.
The primary U.S. aim, officials said, has been that the Russians would cease all air operations in the area and prevent Syrian planes from flying — effectively instituting a “no-fly zone.” Russia would be responsible for keeping Assad and allied forces within parameters of a cease-fire, and both sides would be responsible for ensuring the free movement of humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Mohammad Momani, Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs, said Friday that the cease-fire “will take place along a line of contact agreed upon between Syrian government forces and associated troops on one side and rebels on the other,” according to Petra, the Jordanian news agency.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov first spoke publicly about the possibility of collaboration in southwestern Syria when he met with Trump and Tillerson in May. At the time, Lavrov told reporters that Trump had expressed interest in cooperation to stabilize the southwestern area in telephone conversations with Putin early this year, and that details had been further discussed during Tillerson’s visit to Moscow in April.
Lavrov, at a Washington news conference at the time, placed the possible agreement in the context of broader Syrian cease-fire talks that were begun by Russia, Iran and Turkey late last year. Those talks outlined four separate cease-fire areas, including the southwest.
The Trump administration, however, has refused to participate directly in those talks because of Iran’s participation, and U.S. officials said the administration considered discussions about a cease-fire in the southwest to be a separate matter.
Tillerson alluded to a possible agreement Wednesday, when he departed Washington to join Trump in Hamburg.
“The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground cease-fire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said in a statement issued by the State Department.
“We’re at the very beginning,” Tillerson later told reporters, speaking of Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Putin, and “at this point it’s very difficult to say what Russia’s intentions are in this relationship. And I think that’s the most important part of this meeting, is to have a good exchange between President Trump and President Putin over what they both see as the nature of this relationship between our two countries.”