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Putin Invites Trump To Help End Syrian War As Russia Bombs Civilian Targets

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, pose for a photo with Russian military pilots at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria last December.
Mikhail Klimentyev
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, pose for a photo with Russian military pilots at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria last December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rushed into Syria three years ago in an effort to save his ally President Bashar Assad, now says he can work with the U.S. to bring peace and reconciliation to the war-torn country.

"As far as Syria is concerned," Putin said, standing next to President Trump at the Helsinki summit, "the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of this successful joint work."

Both the U.S. and Russia have worked at cross purposes in Syria for years. The U.S. has said Assad must go, while Russia has worked to shore up the Assad regime. The U.S. also has supported anti-Assad rebels. But U.S. support for the rebels dwindled as it began to focus more on defeating the Islamic State caliphate.

Trump is eager to get out of Syria. He said in March the U.S. would leave Syria "very soon," and recently froze $200 million in stabilization aid for the area that U.S.-backed rebels control in the country's north east.

The U.S. military was successful in persuading Trump to remain in Syria at least through the fall to finish off the last enclaves of ISIS fighters. U.S. officials tell NPR that the American effort to stabilize the area, including training some 30,000 local security officials, could take at least another year.

But now it appears that Putin is suggesting the two countries can work more closely, and perhaps allow the U.S. to leave earlier.

"Russia and the United States apparently can act proactively," Putin said, "and take leadership on this issue and organize the interaction to overcome humanitarian crises and help Syrian refugees to go back to their homes. In order to accomplish this level of successful cooperation in Syria, we have all the required components."

Despite such talk, Russian aircraft and artillery have taken part in attacks that have killed thousands of civilians, as well as U.S.-backed rebels. The Syrian regime also has used chemical weapons and confiscated property, with the acquiescence of its Russian ally.

A partner in Assad's war on his people

Despite pledges to do so, Russia has not gone after ISIS, but rather uses the term "terrorists" to describe any group which opposes the Assad regime.

Russia has taken part in attacks on hospitals and humanitarian aid convoys. In recent weeks Syria and Russia have launched airstrikes in the southwestern part of the country near Israel and Jordan, violating a cease-fire agreed to by both Putin and Trump.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of civilians, including 15 children, were killed in those attacks.

"Civilians are paying the price of another military offensive," Wouter Schapp, Syria country director for the aid organization CARE, said recently. "Cities and towns are bombed daily, people are being uprooted and lack basic human necessities, such as water and shelter."

Moreover, Russian mercenaries back in February attacked U.S.-backed rebels in eastern Syria, including a location where American advisers were present. The attackers fired artillery shells, though there were no injuries to rebels or U.S. forces. U.S. aircraft responded, killing about 200 of the 500 attackers.

Russian officials denied there were Russian personnel in the area, saying only they were pro-Syrian fighters.

Still, Putin was right in saying at the Helsinki press conference that both U.S. and Russian personnel are cooperating through a so-called "deconfliction line."

He was referring to communications between U.S. and Russian pilots who make sure they "deconflict" the airspace to prevent accidents or worse between the two.

U.S. military officials also agree the deconfliction line is working well. On that point, both sides are in agreement.

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Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.