By Joyce Karam
In his first meeting with a senior Russian official since coming to office in January, US President Donald Trump underscored to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran and Iranian proxies.”
Trump’s demand was what US officials have privately been emphasizing on the Syrian issue in recent months.
The White House meeting with Lavrov — the first for Russia’s seasoned diplomat in Washington since 2013 — was clouded with the firing of FBI director James Comey, who just last week called Russia the “greatest threat” to the US Democratic process. He also sought an expanded investigation into the alleged Russian meddling in the US election, just days before he was fired.
The Comey cloud, however, did not appear to have hindered the conversation with Lavrov. Trump described the meeting as “very, very good.”
In its statement, the White House stuck to traditional US talking points and positions on key issues with Russia. The statement said that Trump “emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria, in particular, underscoring the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran and Iranian proxies.”
Splitting Russia from Iran in Syria, according to US sources, has been gaining traction inside the White House, not out of conviction that it could be realistically achieved.
Sources explained the pitch as a way of expressing US reservations about Moscow’s behavior in Syria.
The Russian-Iranian coordination is seen in Moscow’s latest plan to create “security zones” in the country with Iran as one of the three guarantors.
Washington has several questions about the plan, but the Iran element is a crucial troubling part for the US administration, according to the sources.
Trump also raised the “possibility of broader cooperation on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere” and “to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”
Lavrov’s stop at the White House followed a lengthy meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday morning.
The two diplomats “discussed the importance of defeating Daesh, de-escalating the violence in Syria and ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout the country,” the State Department said.
The US made reference to the “UN-led political process in Geneva” for Syria and not to the Astana meetings that Russia has sponsored for the conflict. The statement mentioned Geneva as “central to international efforts to bring about an enduring resolution to the conflict.”
Trump and Lavrov also discussed Ukraine. The US president “expressed the administration’s commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict and stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements.”
Tillerson struck a hard line on Ukraine, stating that “the need for progress toward full implementation of the Minsk agreements” and that “sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them.”
The Lavrov meetings did not achieve a breakthrough and the two sides “agreed to continue discussions to resolve other issues of bilateral concern, including strategic stability.”
Trump’s next meeting with a foreign leader will be Monday as he hosts Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer described the UAE as a “key partner” in the region and said the meeting is aimed at deepening cooperation.
US sources told Arab News that the meeting with Mohammed bin Zayed was initially planned for mid-summer, but Trump’s highly anticipated visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel sped up the plans for a US-UAE summit. Trump is expected to leave to Riyadh next Thursday.