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.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There were many astonishing moments in today's press conference with President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of them involved the way forward in Syria. Putin sent Russian forces into Syria about three years ago to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad's forces have attacked civilian areas, and the Russian air force is also blamed for civilian casualties. The U.S. has military forces in Syria, too. And joining us now to talk about what Putin and Trump said about Syria is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: First describe what the two of them said about the way forward in Syria and what stood out to you about these remarks.
BOWMAN: Well, what stood out is that Putin portrayed himself as a peacemaker and invited Trump to join him. But in reality, the Russians over the past three years have enabled the Assad regime which has killed about a half million people. And both Syria and Russia have bombed hospitals, humanitarian convoys, schools. And Russia supported a regime that has used of course chemical weapons on its own people. But listen to what Putin said today.
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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) As far as Syria is concerned, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of this successful joint work. Russia and the United States apparently can act proactively 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.
BOWMAN: So he talked about overcoming a humanitarian crisis largely created by Russia and Assad. And as far as Syrian refugees going back to their homes, Ari, the Assad regime has confiscated property from those who oppose them.
SHAPIRO: So if Russia has attacked groups that the U.S. is supporting and Russia is supporting the Assad regime that the U.S. opposes, where is there room for cooperation here? What could that look like?
BOWMAN: Well, it's hard to say. One possibility is creating cease-fire zones or zones of responsibility. A cease-fire zone was created in the southwestern part of the country between Putin and Trump just last year. That's unraveled now. Syrian and Russian aircraft are attacking rebels, killing civilians as well, displacing hundreds of thousands more. Now, complicating all this is U.S. is supporting Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast or the other side of the country. They're primarily focused on defeating ISIS.
But after ISIS is defeated, the U.S. wants to stabilize the area, create security forces, rebuild water treatment plants and so forth. But the question is, will Assad just try to take over that whole area? So they've been trying to do that, and that was in Syria back in February. The Russian mercenaries, this force called Wagner, tried to cross into this area where the U.S. and the Kurdish forces were, and the U.S. struck back and killed 200 of them.
SHAPIRO: Wow. You talked to a lot of people at the Pentagon, military leaders. What do they say about the dream of U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria? Is this plausible?
BOWMAN: Well, they're very wary of it as a result of the Russian mercenaries...
BOWMAN: ...Attacking U.S.-Kurdish forces. What they hope to do is first defeat ISIS and then try to stabilize this area and then hopefully have some sort of a peace conference where these Kurdish and Arab allies of the U.S. can somehow be part of a new Syria. But Trump - he seems like he wants to get out rather quickly. He froze $200 million in stabilization aid just recently, and he may just decide, we've spent enough time and money there; let's just turn it over to Russia.
SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.