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Russia Says Agreements Were Discussed With Trump On Syria. The U.S. Is Silent

Jul 19, 2018
Originally published on July 19, 2018 9:47 pm

Russian officials are saying the meeting in Helsinki between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin resulted in an agreement that includes cooperation between the two countries in Syria.

Speaking at a news conference next to Trump on Monday, Putin said establishing peace and reconciliation "could be the first showcase example of the successful joint work. Russia and the United States apparently can proactively take leadership on this issue," including overcoming the humanitarian crisis and helping Syrians go back to their homes.

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters on Wednesday Putin spoke with Trump about "specific and interesting proposals," on how the two countries could work together in Syria.

No official joint communiqué came out after Helsinki.

So far, Russian officials are the only ones providing information about any agreements discussed at the summit. The Pentagon has been silent. And the White House put out a statement, saying it was reviewing the discussions between the two presidents and "considering possible next steps."

But there's a problem for the U.S. military to work closely with Russia: It's illegal.

A 4-year-old law — the result of Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine — prohibits any U.S. cooperation or coordination with Russia's military.

"It is true that the National Defense Authorization Act as a law prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating with Russian forces so that does guide our activities," said Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including the anti-ISIS fight.

So how could the U.S. work with Russia in Syria? The general said there would have to be some type of waiver that allows it.

That all seemed lost on President Trump on Monday, when he spoke at the Helsinki news conference standing next to Putin.

"Our militaries do get along very well," Trump said, "and they do coordinate in Syria and other places."

Here's another problem: The U.S. and Russia don't see eye to eye on desired outcomes in Syria.

Russia is working to prop up the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces — with Russian military assistance — have targeted anti-regime rebels, killed more than half a million Syrians, and left millions homeless and millions more fleeing as refugees to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Moscow considers all anti-Assad forces to be "terrorists."

The U.S. is focused solely on defeating ISIS, and Pentagon and State Department officials hopes to help Kurdish and Arab rebel allies in Syria get a spot at the peace table.

Russia suggesting the two countries work on the humanitarian effort and returning displaced Syrians to their homes has many analysts shaking their heads.

Russia and its Syrian allies have bombed aid convoys, hospitals and schools. And in late June, in southwestern Syria, scores of women and children were killed by airstrikes and an aid worker with an affiliate of the relief organization CARE was killed in a shelling. Hundreds of thousands more fled for their lives.

The violence goes against a cease-fire deal in that part of Syria, brokered by the U.S., Russia and Jordan last year.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Thursday that "discussions are already underway" for a possible next meeting between Trump and Putin in Washington this fall.

Meanwhile, officials across the U.S. government are still trying to determine what deals may have been reached in the first summit in Helsinki.

Among them, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats had this to say to NBC News: "I don't know what happened in that meeting."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The White House says President Trump is inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington this fall. Well, before then, there are mixed messages to clear up. Russian officials say Trump and Putin agreed in Helsinki to work together in Syria. The U.S. general overseeing the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq says he has received no guidance about what that means. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: General Joe Votel told reporters in a video teleconference that he's only working with Russia on what's called deconfliction. That means the two militaries communicate so that aircraft are not involved in accidents or mishaps in the skies over Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GEN JOSEPH VOTEL: First off, let me just reiterate - no new guidance for me as a result of the Helsinki discussions as of yet.

BOWMAN: The guidance Votel does have is to finish off the Islamic State, clearing the final cluster of fighters along the border with Iraq. Russia meanwhile is focused on something different - propping up the Assad regime and attacking anti-Syrian rebels, some of whom are being supported by the United States.

So far, Russian officials are the only ones providing information about any agreements in Helsinki. The Pentagon has been silent, and the White House put out a statement saying it was reviewing the discussions between the two presidents and, quote, "considering possible next steps." During his press conference at the Helsinki summit this week, President Trump was asked about the U.S. and Russian militaries cooperating in Syria. And he had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our militaries do get along very well, and they do coordinate in Syria and other places.

BOWMAN: But the two militaries do not coordinate in Syria. And a law passed four years ago after Russia's seizure of Crimea actually prohibits the two militaries from working together. General Votel picked up on that with reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VOTEL: It is true the National Defense Authorization Act as a law prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing, collaborating with Russian forces, so that does guide our activities.

BOWMAN: So how could the U.S. work with Russia in Syria? The general said Congress would have to take some type of action, maybe come up with a waiver. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.