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Trump and Putin Agree to Seek Syria Cease-Fire
President Trump reopened direct communications with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Tuesday and sought to reignite what he hoped would be a special relationship by agreeing to work together to broker a cease-fire in war-torn Syria.
In their first telephone conversation since the United States launched a cruise missile strike on Syria's Moscow-backed military to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on civilians, Mr. Trump agreed to send a representative to Russian-brokered cease-fire talks that start on Wednesday in Astana, Kazakhstan. He and Mr. Putin also discussed meeting each other in Germany in July.
But American and Russian officials offered divergent accounts of their interest in establishing safe zones in Syria to protect civilians suffering from a relentless, six-year civil war. A White House statement said the two leaders had discussed such zones "to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons." The Kremlin statement made no mention of safe zones, and Mr. Putin's spokesman said they had not been discussed in detail.
Still, at the talks in Astana, Mr. Putin's envoys plan to propose that Russia, Iran and Turkey act as buffer forces separating government and rebel forces in some areas of Syria. The government of President Bashar al-Assad is skeptical of the plan, seeing it as the first step toward a partition of the country, according to diplomats and analysts.
The call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin was aimed at getting past the rupture of recent weeks and beginning to forge a more collaborative relationship. Mr. Trump came to office praising Mr. Putin and making it a priority to draw closer to Moscow, but his goal has been hobbled by multiple investigations into Russian meddling in last year's election and the clash over Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people.
The initial optimism on both sides has given way to a sour and uncertain mood as geopolitical gravity has pulled Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin in opposite directions and lowered expectations. While a grand bargain now seems out of reach, the two leaders appeared intent on finding areas where they could agree while managing areas where they did not.
"Still some hopes, disappointment and caution," Vladimir Frolov, a prominent foreign policy analyst and columnist, said of the atmosphere in Moscow. "And apprehension. They are apprehensive about the way that the Trump administration behaves internationally, the unpredictable, unilateral nature of their steps. But they are still hoping for some agreement."
Mr. Trump never gave up, even after he said relations between the United States and Russia "may be at an all-time low." While senior members of his team excoriated Moscow for enabling the Syrian government to use nerve agents against civilians, the president tempered his language, making sure not to criticize Mr. Putin personally and later expressing optimism that "things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia."
When Mr. Trump met with ambassadors from the United Nations Security Council last week, he told them, "The future of Assad is not a deal-breaker," a Russian diplomat said afterward. And last weekend, he returned to his past equivocation on whether Russia hacked Democratic servers last year, saying it "could've been China, could've been lots of groups."
Tuesday's phone call was the third between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin since the American inauguration in January. Both sides offered positive assessments, with the White House characterizing the conversation as "a very good one" and the Kremlin calling it "businesslike and constructive."
Neither side mentioned the dispute over the chemical attack and cruise missile strike.
"President Trump and President Putin agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence," the White House statement said. The Kremlin said Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov would "intensify" their dialogue to "search for options" in Syria.
"It was a very constructive call that the two presidents had," Mr. Tillerson told reporters. "It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we'll see where we go from here."
In a sign of the domestic pressure surrounding a rapprochement, Democrats seized on Mr. Trump's phone call with Mr. Putin to paint him again as a puppet of the Russian leader.
"Trump's bromance with Putin appears to be back on track," Adrienne Watson, the deputy communications director of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. "Instead of sending Putin a tough messaging on backing Assad's brutal regime, Trump appears to be opting for a strategy of appeasement."
Mr. Trump's effort to ease tensions coincided with a visit to Russia by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who met with Mr. Putin in the southern resort city of Sochi. At a news conference before his call with Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin emphasized that cooperation with Washington was critical to settling the Syria conflict.
"Certainly, without the participation of such a party as the United States, it is also impossible to solve these problems effectively," Mr. Putin said. "So we are and will continue to be in contact with our American partners, and I hope that we will attain understanding there regarding joint steps in this very important and sensitive area of international relations today."
Asked whether he had the influence to sway Mr. Assad, Mr. Putin said that Russia, in tandem with Turkey and Iran, was trying to "create the conditions for political cooperation from all sides."
A cease-fire is the main priority, Mr. Putin said. It will be the focus of the multiparty talks that are to take place in Astana. Until now, the United States had not had any important role in those talks, which Russia, Iran and Turkey set up outside the previous system of negotiations in Geneva.
Mr. Putin again dismissed allegations that Russia was seeking to influence the political landscape in the West by supporting far-right parties and undercutting mainstream factions. "We never interfere in the political life and the political processes of other countries, and we don't want anybody interfering in our political life and foreign policy processes," Mr. Putin said.
The Astana talks were set up as a sort of alternative to the process favored by the United States and the United Nations in Geneva. But Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy on Syria, said Tuesday for the first time that he would attend the talks, and Mr. Trump said he would send a representative. The White House would not say whom, but an American official said it would be Stuart E. Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the region.
Under the Russian proposal expected at Astana, forces from Russia, Turkey and Iran would patrol dividing lines between Syrian government and other forces in what Russia calls "deconfliction zones." They would be set up around rebel pockets in the Damascus suburbs; Idlib Province; southern Syria, near the Jordanian border; and north of the central city of Homs, according to Sputnik, a Russian state-run news outlet.
But Russia said rebels in those areas would first have to push out jihadist groups like the Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, which is linked to Al Qaeda. Other rebel groups, including those supported by the United States and Turkey, have shown intermittent willingness to talk to Russia in Astana, seeing Moscow as more committed to whatever policies it adopts in Syria than the United States has been. But they have also frequently expressed disappointment that Russia has failed to rein in attacks on civilians by the Syrian government.
[Source: By Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times, Washington, 02May17]
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