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Syria Cease-fire Unlikely as Concerns Focus on Preventing Wider Conflict

By Daniel Schearf October 13, 2016

Top diplomats from the United States, Russia, and the Middle East will attempt to salvage a failed Syria cease-fire agreement Saturday with talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, followed by a separate meeting Sunday in London.

The renewed efforts come less than two weeks after the United States suspended bilateral negotiations with Russia and the two sides exchanged mutual recriminations. Russian officials say they are hopeful for positive results.

But as fighting continues in the besieged city of Aleppo, analysts are skeptical of any lasting cease-fire.

"And Russia is intensifying its strikes in order to support exhausted forces of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad in their last attempt to take over Aleppo," says deputy editor of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal (Weekly Journal) Alexander Golts. "Now, it's absolutely clear that [the] Russian goal is not to fight terrorists from IS (Islamic State) or Jabhat al-Nusra. [The] Russian goal is to support Assad, to save Assad. And, it's the main point of contradiction between [the] West and Russia."

Many believe Russia wants to first help the Syrian president take Aleppo so they can have a stronger negotiating position.

But Russia has also warned coalition forces targeting militants to keep their distance and threatened to shoot down any planes that get too close to Russian or Syrian forces.

Wider conflict feared

While a cease-fire would be welcomed, analysts say the bigger concern is preventing a wider conflict developing in Syria.

"Three weeks ago we discussed the possibility of military cooperation between Russia and the United States. Now all these possibilities disappeared," says Golts. "The main realistic goal is to avoid direct military confrontation now between [the] United States and Russia in Syria."

A White House spokesman ruled out the possibility of any U.S. military cooperation with Russia in Syria. U.S. officials say it is now clear their goals in Syria are no longer compatible with Russia's, a view echoed by some analysts.

"The pretense at a possibility of strategic cooperation went on for far too long and was a major contributing factor to the lack of communication between the two sides that has led us to this dangerous situation now," says Chatham House's Keir Giles. "So, recognizing what is and is not achievable, in terms of cooperation with Russia on shared challenges, and there are some, is the first step toward making it actually happen and reducing the current tensions."

Russia has increased its military presence in Syria and announced plans to maintain bases there indefinitely.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt to impose Russia as a partner on the United States did not work, its support for Assad failed to reach a decisive victory, so the war is going to last longer than Moscow expected, says Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin.

The political rift appeared after the bombing of a U.N. aid convoy, which Washington blamed on Moscow, and Russia stepped-up military support for the Syrian offensive on Aleppo.

The United States and France suggested Russia be investigated for war crimes in Syria for attacks on civilians, a notion that Putin dismissed as "rhetoric" in a Wednesday interview with French television. Putin said the West was responsible for the war in Syria and for fueling the rise of radical Islam.

Russia points the finger at the United States for a mistaken airstrike on Syrian forces and for not doing enough to separate moderate rebels from Islamist militants.

Russia's Foreign Ministry Thursday said separating the groups would be among key points of discussion during the weekend talks.

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