U.S. proposal to Russia: Joint airstrikes on terror groups in Syria if you stop bombing U.S.-backed rebels

WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) — The Obama administration has proposed joint airstrikes with Russia on terrorist groups fighting in Syria in exchange for Russia convincing the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-backed rebels.

The proposal calls for joint U.S.-Russia airstrikes on the al-Qaida-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, the main group fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In exchange, Russia would stop attacks on U.S.-backed rebels and agree to put pressure on Assad to stop attacks as well.

CNN said the plan was only a proposal. Sources familiar with the deal told CNN it is unlikely Russia would agree. The Washington Post reported the plan has been sent to Moscow and was “personally approved by President Obama and heavily supported by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was originally opposed to the plan but ultimately decided to back the president’s decision, the Post reported.

U.S. officials said last year that Russia appeared to be targeting Syrian rebel groups supplied by the CIA and the Pentagon, but Russia insisted it was targeting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.

“Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made it clear on multiple occasions that the airstrikes are targeted at ISIL [Islamic State], Nusra, and other terrorist groups,” a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington said in October 2015.

The United States launched a covert program to train Syrian rebels to fight Assad in 2013. The program ultimately cost $500 million, and succeeded in training only a handful of fighters. The commander of one of the units defected to Jabhat al-Nusra and handed over vehicles and ammunition to the group.

The program was cancelled in 2015. The United States, however, has continued to fund and equip Syrian rebels, through the CIA and the Department of Defense. It is these rebels it has accused Russia of targeting with airstrikes.

State Department spokesman John Kirby would not discuss specifics of the proposal, but said there have been efforts to coordinate with Russia.

“We have been clear about Russia’s obligations to ensure regime compliance with the cessation of hostilities,” Kirby told CNN. “We have also been clear about the danger posed by al-Qaida in Syria to our own national security. We are looking at a number of measures to address both of these issues.”

The proposal comes weeks after 51 U.S. diplomats sent a letter to the State Department calling for “targeted military strikes” against the Syrian government as it continues to violate cease-fire agreements in the country’s five-year civil war. The memo called for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”

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