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Our awkward alliance with Russia

Von David Ignatius


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Washington - Russia is emerging as an essential diplomatic and security partner for the U.S. in Syria, despite the Obama administration's opposition to Moscow's support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian-American cooperation on Syria now includes regular diplomatic, military and intelligence contacts. Moscow and Washington have evolved a delicate process for "de-confliction" in the tight Syrian airspace, where accidents or miscommunication could be disastrous.

Administration officials see working with Russia as the best of a bad set of options. An administration that has had trouble living with President Vladimir Putin, especially after his actions in Ukraine, finds that it can't live without him in Syria. Washington's hope is that Putin will support American efforts to negotiate a cease-fire because he concludes it's the only way to avoid a quagmire.

"While we remain skeptical of Russian interests and intentions in Syria, we also believe that they will be an essential part of any political solution to this conflict," one senior administration official explained Tuesday. "The degree of communication we have with them reflects that view."

Putin this week seemed to take a public step toward the U.S. position that Assad must go eventually. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild released Tuesday, Putin hinted that he might grant Assad asylum. He said granting asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden "was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr. Al-Assad." The Russian leader also said Assad "has made many mistakes in the course of the Syrian conflict."

Putin's reference to asylum was taken "very seriously" by the White House, a second administration official noted Tuesday. "I think he was sending a signal about where he stands" that was consistent with what Russian officials have been telling the U.S. in private, the official said.

Syria was also the subject of a phone call Monday between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They talked about plans for a Jan. 25 U.N.-sponsored meeting in Geneva to organize a common opposition front. Kerry and Lavrov are likely to meet in Europe next week for more talk about the Syria negotiations, including how to keep Iran and Saudi Arabia on board.

Another Russian-American channel involves CIA Director John Brennan. His conversations include exchanges about Islamic State terrorists that threaten both countries, and crises such as the shoot-down of a Russian jet by Turkey in November.

Brennan explained the counterterrorism dialogue in November at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We've been exchanging information. I think it needs to be enhanced. But I am determined to continue to work with my Russian counterparts because of the importance that I think we each can bring to this issue in terms of our insights, our information, our data, and sharing it."

An important booster of Russian-American cooperation is Jordan's King Abdullah. U.S. officials believe the monarch has sought a special relationship with Putin and hopes soon to coordinate military activities with Russia against the Islamic State. Already, there is a joint Jordanian-Russian military coordination center in Jordan; the Jordanians hope it could be the bridge to a cease-fire in the south between rebels and the Assad regime, and a coordinated assault on the Islamic State. So far, though, the Russians have continued pounding the anti-Assad rebels in southern and northern Syria, alike.

For the past year, Jordanian officials have been discussing with their American counterparts the creation of a forward operating base inside Syria that could be a rallying point for Sunni forces against the Islamic State. Described as a modern-day "Fort Apache," this base would be organized by special forces from Jordan and other Western and Arab coalition partners; U.S. officials, long skeptical of such a move, appear more supportive.

The crowded skies over Syria pose a special challenge. The U.S. and Russia have agreed on a memorandum of understanding that mandates "maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground," according to Lt. Col. Kristi Beckman, a spokeswoman at Centcom. U.S. and Russian pilots operate at "safe distances," she said, and if Syrian planes are near, "it is standard practice for us to stand off until the airspace is clear."

For President Obama, the willingness to work with Putin is an act of foreign policy realism or desperation, depending on your point of view. Some would argue that in Syria, the two converge.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post" .