The Latest: Trump willing to work with Russia against IS
BEIRUT (AP) — The latest on Syria talks that are being held in Kazakhstan and developments on the ground in the war-torn country (all times local):
The Trump administration says it is willing to partner with Moscow to combat the Islamic State group.
In his first daily White House press briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that President Donald Trump has been “very clear” that he will “work with any country committed to defeating ISIS.”
He says the administration will work “with Russia or anyone else” to defeat the militant group, either militarily or economically.
The president has vowed to defeat IS “quickly” when he takes office, though he has not provided specifics on his plans for U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Syria.
On Monday the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had carried out a joint airstrike mission with U.S.-led coalition warplanes against IS in Syria. That claim was immediately denied by the Pentagon
The U.S. says Russia’s claim that its warplanes flew a joint mission over Syria with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group is “rubbish.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Monday its forces in Syria had received coordinates of IS targets near al-Bab on Sunday “from the U.S. side via hotline with the international coalition headquarters.”
U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a coalition spokesman, almost immediately labeled the Russian claim as propaganda.
U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. does have routine “deconfliction” talks with Russia to avoid unintended aerial incidents in Syria’s crowded skies. But Davis says there have been no changes to that arrangement, and the U.S. has insisted for months that it has no coordination or sharing of targets with Russia.
The Russian military says its warplanes have flown a joint mission in Syria against the Islamic State group together with the U.S.-led coalition.
If confirmed by Washington, the mission would represent the first coordinated action against IS by Russia and the U.S.-led coalition. Russia has pushed for such cooperation in the past, but Barack Obama’s administration had refused.
New U.S. President Donald Trump has called for joint efforts with Russia against IS.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces in Syria had received coordinates of IS targets near al-Bab on Sunday “from the U.S. side via hotline with the international coalition headquarters.”
It said Monday that two Russian warplanes and two aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition then struck the targets, destroying several ammunition and fuel depots along with militants and weapons.
The attack followed a joint raid in the same area flown by Russian and Turkish jets on Saturday.
A Syrian opposition spokesman says the first day of talks has concluded, after rebel representatives met Russia’s presidential envoy to the talks to discuss ways to reinforce a shaky cease-fire.
Yahya al-Aridi, the spokesman for the rebel delegation to the talks, says the opposition also met Monday with the Russian and Turkish delegations in the presence of the U.N. envoy to Syria to discuss a nationwide cease-fire.
He says the talks are scheduled to conclude Tuesday.
He says the talks with Russian president envoy Alexander Lavrentyev touched on political issues, but the focus was on the cease-fire. He didn’t elaborate.
Russia had previously asked that Jaysh al-Islam, the group to which the lead rebel negotiator belongs, be designated as a “terrorist” group.
Russia, an ally of the Syrian government, and Turkey which backs the opposition, have sponsored the talks and a shaky cease-fire reached on Dec. 30.
Russia’s official news agency says the final document for the talks held in the Kazakh capital is to call on Syria’s rebels to distance themselves from an al-Qaida linked group in Syria.
Tass news agency published the draft communique Monday, on the opening day of talks that brought for the first time government and rebel representatives in the same room. The face-to-face meeting was brief, and was followed by proximity talks mediated by the U.N. The talks are sponsored by Russia and Turkey. Iran, a major ally of the Syrian government, backs the talks.
Tass said the three countries will confirm their determination to jointly fight the Islamic State group and Fatah al-Sham Front, an al-Qaida-affiliate in Syria. Fatah al-Sham works closely with a number of rebel groups in Syria, and has called the meeting a “conspiracy” designed to drive a wedge between the insurgents.
The head of Syria’s rebel delegation at the peace talks in Kazakhstan has called for placing foreign militias fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s army on the list of terrorist organizations.
In a speech at the opening session of talks in Astana Monday, Mohammad Alloush said such groups include Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
He also said Syrian civilians were subject to two forms of terrorism: “The terrorism of Bashar Assad or the terrorism of Daesh,” in reference to the Islamic State group.
A video of his speech was leaked by opposition delegates inside the meeting and obtained by The Associated Press.
Alloush also reiterated the call for consolidating a Russian-backed ceasefire agreement announced late last month. Syria’s government envoy later slammed the speech as “provocative” and “insolent.”
A Syrian Cabinet minister in charge of national reconciliation says the peace conference that began Monday in Kazakhstan is a “juncture to test intentions” on the cessation of hostilities and the possibility that some rebel groups may join the Syrian army in fighting extremists.
National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told The Associated Press on Monday that although Turkey is a sponsor of the talks, Ankara “still has a long way to prove its intentions” because it is still backing Syrian rebels.
Haidar said that last month’s capture of rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo and achievements in other parts of Syria paved the way for more reconciliation. He was referring to areas where rebels decided to stop fighting in return for an amnesty or to move to other rebel-held areas.
The United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is calling on participants in talks between Syria’s warring sides to agree on mechanisms to implement a nationwide truce.
De Mistura says the talks in Kazakhstan, if successful in consolidating the current cease-fire, can pave the way for direct talks between the different Syrian parties in Geneva next month. Speaking on the first day of the talks Monday, De Mistura says finding ways to build confidence between the Syrian government and its armed opposition will also improve the fight against terrorist groups, who are excluded from a cease-fire reached on Dec. 30.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says six Russian long-ranger bombers have struck Islamic State group positions in eastern Syria.
The ministry said in a statement on Monday that the Tu-22m3 bombers took off from an air base in Russia and conducted air strikes around the city of Deir el-Zour, targeting the militants’ command posts and ammunition depots.
The ministry said fighter jets from a Russian air base in the government-controlled part of Syria provided cover for the bombers.
The raid came as Syrian government troops in Deir el-Zour find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation, cut in half in an ongoing IS offensive against the last remaining pockets of government control. The Islamic State group is excluded from the shaky cease-fire currently in place in Syria.
The head of Syria’s rebel delegation at the peace talks in Kazakhstan says the opposition is “ready to go to the ends of the earth” to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Mohammad Alloush told reporters on Monday, after an hour of indirect talks with government representatives in Astana that the rebels “are men of peace, and at the same time knights of war.”
Alloush is a political officer for the powerful Army of Islam faction fighting mostly around Damascus.
He attacked President Bashar Assad’s rule, calling it a “terror” state and said only after the cease-fire becomes a “reality on the ground” can the two sides move on to political talks.
He says the Syrian opposition will also insist at the talks in Astana on the resumption of aid deliveries and other humanitarian demands.
Syria’s government envoy at the peace talks in Astana has denounced as “provocative” and “insolent” a speech delivered by the head of the rebel factions attending the gathering in Kazakhstan.
Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, says rebel leader Mohammad Alloush’s speech in Astana did not rise to the level of the gathering of diplomats attending the conference.
Ja’afari in remarks to reporters in Astana repeatedly referred to the rebel delegation as representatives of “terrorist armed groups.” He also said that the agenda for the talks, which are sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, is “not ready yet.”
The harsh and uncompromising tone of Ja’afari’s remarks was a bad omen for the talks, which had barely started with an opening ceremony and speeches by various representatives.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the U.N. envoy for Syria is mediating between the representatives of the Damascus government and the rebel factions at the talks underway in Kazakhstan.
Lavrov said at a news conference on Monday in Moscow that Russia is “glad these talks started today, despite predictions and attempts to hamper” them.
He says the U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, will have the support of the Iranian delegation in contacts with Syrian government representatives while the Turkish delegation will be helping de Mistura reach out to the rebels attending the talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
After the opening ceremony in which the Syrian rebels and the government delegation sat across from one another at a round table, the talks went into a closed session.
There was no indication if rebels and government officials would be talking face-to-face behind closed doors but Lavrov’s remarks indicated that part of the gathering is more similar to proximity talks, with de Mistura shuttling between the two sides.
Iran says that preserving a tenuous cease-fire in Syria will be “the most important issue” in talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Kazakhstan.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi says Iran is hopeful that the talks held Monday and Tuesday can shore up the cease-fire and pave the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
He suggested that discussions over a larger political settlement would have to wait, saying: “Let’s wait and see how the process can be continued based on conclusions that will be announced Tuesday.”
The talks, organized by Russia and Turkey, are the latest attempt to halt the nearly six-year conflict. Russia and Iran are the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, while Turkey supports the armed opposition trying to topple him.
The two sides have traded blame for repeated violations of the Dec. 30 cease-fire, which was also brokered by Russia and Turkey.
Russia- and Turkey-backed talks between Syrian rebel factions and government representatives have opened in Kazakhstan.
The talks are the first between the two warring sides in a year and mark the first face-to-face meeting between government representatives and a delegation heavily made up of rebels.
Representatives of Syria’s rebel factions sat on one side of a room at the luxury Rixos Hotel in the capital, Astana, while government delegates sat on the other side.
The talks are expected to focus on consolidating a shaky cease-fire that has been in place since Dec. 30.
Talks between Syrian rebel factions and the government they are trying to overthrow are set to begin in Kazakhstan.
Monday’s meeting will be the first between Syria’s warring sides in a year and is expected to focus on consolidating a shaky cease-fire that has been in place since Dec. 30.
The talks are sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran whose representatives in the Kazakh capital of Astana have held meetings with delegates from both sides late into the evening Sunday and early on Monday.
The opposition delegation, which arrived in Astana on Sunday, is made up of about a dozen rebel figures led by Mohammad Alloush of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group.
The Syrian government has sent its U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, and military delegates.