NEW YORK/WASHINGTON - The United States and Russia see Islamic State as a common enemy but are failing to overcome deep mutual distrust and agree on how to tackle the threat together, making any role for Moscow in the US-led campaign unlikely, say US officials.
Differences between the former Cold War foes are stark, say the officials. Moscow suspects Washington's ulterior motive is removal of its ally, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Washington refuses to consider working together as long as Moscow insists that US strikes need Syrian and UN approval.
Diplomatic efforts, from high-level talks at the United Nations to informal contacts in Moscow, have failed to resolve those misgivings, which echo broader problems in US-Russian relations, already at a post-Cold War low over the crisis in Ukraine, American officials say. "The main obstacle to Russian participation is Moscow's position that 'this can only be taken with permission of the Syrian government or through the UN,' which is not something we accept," a senior US administration official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity. "If Russia thinks that somehow they're going to gain some kind of shift in the US policy, that is not going to happen." Though Russia has no sympathy for Islamic State militants who have seized large tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria and face US-led air strikes in both countries, Moscow's relationship with Syria forms a difficult backdrop to talks over any potential role.
Russia's absence from the anti-Islamic State coalition complicates Washington's calculus, reducing the possibility of US leverage over the flow of Russian arms into Damascus as the US-led campaign moves forward with air strikes in Syria and arms anti-Assad rebels.
Moscow, which has been trying to raise its diplomatic and economic influence in the Middle East, has been a major provider of conventional weapons to Syria, giving Assad crucial support during the nearly four-year civil war and blocking wider Western attempts to punish him with sanctions for the use of force against civilians.
Washington, meanwhile, backs moderate Syrian rebels who are seeking to topple Assad and are likely to play a central role in any future ground campaign inside Syria. The US government accuses Assad of widespread human rights abuses and says it will never ask for Assad's permission for its air strikes.
While this all but rules out military collaboration in Syria against Islamic State, also known as ISIL, US officials still see potential for common cause on another front: aiding Baghdad's battle to roll back Islamic State's gains in Iraq. But there, too, joint US-Russian action appears out of the question. "The US and Russia share an interest in defeating the kind of violent extremism that ISIL represents," a senior State Department official said.
DIDN'T CHANGE ANYTHING
Russian sensitivity about Assad's fate figured prominently in private discussions between Moscow and Washington in recent weeks, say US officials with direct knowledge of those talks. After President Barack Obama announced air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq in August, members of his administration began signaling to Moscow that Syria was next, the officials said.
They said Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed the message to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Sept. 15 on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq, attended by UN Security Council permanent members, European and Arab states, and representatives of the EU, Arab League and United Nations. All pledged to help the government in Baghdad.
At that meeting, Kerry offered assurances that the United States would not directly target Assad or his forces, the officials said. Meeting at the United Nations on Wednesday, just days after the start of the US-led air assault in Syria, the two again discussed the conflict. "It didn't change anything," a senior US official said.