- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2016

Russia is proposing a battle plan for Syria which includes joint air operations with U.S. forces to target Islamic extremist groups in the country, a significant step which could change the tenor of the ongoing war there.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu unveiled the offer Friday, which included details on how Moscow, Washington and Damascus would coordinate efforts to target Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian faction.

As proposed, leaders of the international coalition working to draft a peace pact between the country’s moderate rebels and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, would establish a May 25 cease-fire and order all armed factions to evacuate al-Nusra held territory in Syria, according to recent reports.

Once clear, the remaining al-Nusra militants and those who opt not to abide by the cease-fire and evacuation would be subject to airstrikes by American and Russian warplanes.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Friday that “proposals for a sustainable mechanism to better monitor and enforce the cessation of hostilities” in Syria between both countries were being explored.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Friday the U.S. military’s policy toward Russia’s Syrian operations had not changed. With the exception of an aerial deconfliction pact with Moscow, U.S. forces “do not coordinate with Russia on any operations in Syria.”

Russian warplanes have thus far trained their bombs on anti-government positions near Aleppo and other rebel outposts in northern Syria. The use of American air power in the country has been in support of moderate militias fighting to retake the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa from the militant’s control.

President Obama ordered 250 U.S. special operations forces and military advisers to Syria to coordinate efforts to retake Raqqa with the Syrian-Arab Coalition, a 5,000-man unit under the Syrian Democratic Forces, Pentagon officials said.

So far, Russia has been “very respectful” of U.S. forces in the country in places such as Shaddadi in southern Syria and other areas where the two countries missions overlap, Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the operations chief for U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, told reporters in April.

Russian President Vladimir Putin officially called an end to the country’s air war in Syria as part of a tenuous cease-fire pact reached between the country’s warring factions in March.

But Moscow continued to strike anti-government targets in Homs, the opposition’s de facto headquarters, along with other anti-Assad centers in western Syria in the face of international condemnation.

Russia claimed it was targeting Islamic State forces and those tied to Jabhat al-Nusra, and others who were not covered by the cease-fire.

The U.S. and its European allies claimed the majority of the targets being struck by Russian warplanes American-trained and equipped moderate rebel groups battling to overthrow the Assad regime, as well as civilian targets in the country.

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