WASHINGTON/MOSCOW – The U.S. and Russia exchanged warnings about a possible chemical attack in Syria and a Western military intervention in response, on the eve of what may be one of the decisive campaigns in the Middle Eastern country’s civil war.
Tensions between the nuclear powers flared after National Security Adviser John Bolton told his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, that the U.S. has information Syrian President Bashar Assad may be preparing to use chemical weapons to recapture the northwestern province of Idlib from rebels.
The U.S. is ready to respond forcefully, Bolton said during a five-hour meeting in Geneva on Thursday, according to four people familiar with the discussions. Assad’s army, with Russian air support, has been mustering troops and tanks around Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian opposition groups now dominated by jihadis.
Russia’s Defense Ministry hit back on Saturday, accusing the U.S. of collaborating with al-Qaida-linked rebels who are preparing to stage an incident that would serve as a pretext for another round of Western attacks on Assad.
In April 2017, and again a year later, the U.S. carried out limited airstrikes on Syrian targets as punishment for what it said was the use of chemical weapons. Bolton said any U.S. action will be stronger this time, the people familiar with the talks said.
“We caution Washington against another military escapade,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a phone interview Saturday. “When things don’t turn out the way the U.S. and its allies want, then new provocations are prepared.”
While the Geneva talks have highlighted a dangerous new flashpoint in the Syrian war, they also addressed new possibilities for cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, according to the people familiar with the discussions.
Central to the talks was the role of Iranian forces in Syria, and the presence of about 2,000 U.S. troops in the country’s northeast, where they’re allied with Kurdish fighters seeking autonomy from Damascus.
As the Assad-Russia-Iran alliance gained a decisive advantage over Western-backed rebel groups, U.S. goals in Syria have shifted. President Donald Trump’s administration, like its allies in Europe and the Gulf, has largely abandoned the goal of toppling the Syrian leader. It’s now more focused on removing the Iranian forces that played a key part in Assad’s victory.
The U.S. and Russia are nowhere near an agreement on how that could be brought about, according to one of the people familiar with the talks. Still, the issue was raised in Geneva — and so was the prospect of an eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, something Trump aides said Saturday that the president is still keen to achieve.
An American pullout could only happen when all Iranian fighters, as well as their weapons and their militia allies, are gone from Syria — and it’s not clear if Russia could deliver that outcome even if it wanted to, one of the people said. The U.S. would also have to be satisfied that Islamic State has been completely crushed in Syria.
Ryabkov said Russia doesn’t believe that the U.S. wants to withdraw its troops. The evidence “shows the opposite — Washington’s desire to stay in Syria for a longer period of time,” he said.
At one particular American base in Syria, near the border with Iraq, the possibility of direct U.S.-Russian military collaboration was floated during the Geneva talks, according to the people familiar with them.
Again, no agreement was reached. But there was interest in further discussion of a plan that could see the two countries’ soldiers working together around the Al-Tanf base to guard against the flow of militants or weapons across the border, the people said.
On the wider issue of Iran, America and Russia remain far apart. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a vocal supporter of the agreement signed by world powers in 2015 to curb Iran’s nuclear program and lift sanctions.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of that accord in May, saying it had failed to effectively deter Iran from pursuing nuclear capabilities or meddling in the region. His administration is now ramping up economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, and trying to persuade allies to join in.
The U.S. position in Geneva was that there can be no overarching deal with Russia over Syria as long as there’s any Iranian presence there, according to two of the people familiar with the talks.
Ryabkov said that Russia views the American demand for a radically reduced Iranian role in the Middle East as “out of touch with reality.”