- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2019

The Trump administration opened critical talks with Russia and Turkey on the future of Syria on Monday, seeking to coordinate plans after the long-awaited defeat of the Islamic State and President Trump’s planned drawdown of U.S. forces.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford met with his Russian counterpart Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Vienna on Tuesday, according to the Pentagon.

The focus of the talks remained focused on “the deconfliction of coalition and Russian operations” in Syria, as well as “efforts to improve operational safety and strategic stability between the U.S. and Russian militaries,” a Defense Department readout of the meeting stated.

Russian and Iranian forces have played a key role in backing Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s brutal eight-year civil war, a war Mr. Assad is very close to winning. More recently, Russian and Syrian forces have been reportedly carrying joint patrols around territory liberated from the Islamic State terror group.

Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries under the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have spent the last several days laying siege to the Islamic State’s last strongholds in the Syrian city of Deir-e-Zour. Last week, Mr. Trump announced that “100 percent” of Islamic State-held territory in Syria had been liberated.

But local commanders on the ground say victory against the terror group remains an unfinished task. SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said Tuesday that ground commanders had slowed down the final offensive Baghouz — the small enclave near Deir-e-Zour where the majority of the fighting has taken place. The delay was prompted by concerns over the deaths of civilians being used as human shields by Islamic State fighters.

Separately, U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey arrived in Ankara for meeting with Turkish defense officials and diplomats on Tuesday, to finalize details on the pullout of the bulk of U.S. troops from Syria.

Mr. Jeffrey’s arrival in Turkey comes after two days of negotiations among members of a joint U.S.-Turkey task force created to facilitate the American withdrawal. Those recent talks reportedly focused on liberated territories east of the Euphrates River Valley and the Syrian city of Manbij from the Islamic State.

The city has thus far been the main training and logistics hub for American special operations troops advising Kurdish and Arab paramilitaries allied with the SDF. Four Americans were killed and three seriously injured in an Islamic State suicide bombing in Manbij in January.

Mr. Jeffrey also discussed Turkey‘s decision to press ahead with a controversial Russian missile defense deal, which has further exacerbated tensions between Washington and Ankara, already on edge due to the coalition’s decision to fold in certain Kurdish militants into the anti-Islamic State force, militants Turkey contends have links to Kurdish separatist militants inside Turkey.

Turkey is moving forward with the purchase of the Russian-built S-400 missile defense system, instead of the U.S.-made Patriot missile system. Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey‘s decision to proceed with the Russian weapons deal was a “done deal.”

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