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US, Russia need to act together on Syria

Zhanna Nemtsova
February 21, 2018

You would be forgiven for thinking that the state of world affairs is even more dire than usual. In an interview with DW, former US ambassador Victoria Nuland says the US and Russia need to get their act together.

A boy cycling past a bombed out building in Eastern Ghouta
Image: Reuters/B. Khabieh

DW: Last August the US signed a bill into law called Countering America's Adversaries. It targets Russia together with North Korea and Iran. What is your assessment of President Donald Trump's policies toward Russia?

Victoria Nuland: On the one hand, the Trump administration — with strong pressure from the US Congress behind it — has maintained the sanctions that were put on Russia to incur costs for its incursion into Donbass, in Crimea, and also for its interference in the US election. I have to say that at the moment I don't see a comprehensive Russia policy from the Trump administration towards Moscow. Maybe this is the effect of Russia now being in an election period, but we have a lot of problems and difficulties — whether it's Syria or whether it's Afghanistan or whether it's with regard to nuclear problems and arms control — where we need to work together.

Read more: What foreign powers want from the Syrian war

The so-called Kremlin sanctions list took many experts by surprise as it appeared to be fairly random in terms of the criteria used to pick out the intended targets.

 I don't have any insight particularly into how the administration came up with this list, but I think you know that they were under pressure from the US Congress because Congress is concerned that the president himself is not taking the interference in the US election process as seriously as he needs to. So they wanted a list. And unfortunately the list that we got looks more like the phone book from the Russian government and the Forbes Fortune 500 from Russia than it does a serious effort to pinpoint those who might be supporting these policies that negatively affect our security.

Former US ambassador Victoria Nuland
Former US ambassador Victoria NulandImage: DW

Looking at Syria, you've spoken of the danger that the US and Russia are on a collision course there.

I think the situation in Syria is extremely dangerous right now. We now have great powers competing on the ground for influence with military forces: the US and Russia have been quite proud and positive about our de-escalation mechanism in Syria, our ability to have our military talk to each other so that we don't have accidents. Obviously, it didn't work in this case.

Read moreUS mission creep in Syria: Is it legal?

One of the reasons it appears not to have worked is, because of the Russians involved — if press reports are to be believed — who were not part of the regular military force. They were contractors according to the official statements. So, if true, these contractors were moving beyond the agreed space into territory that the US was responsible for securing. Were they under orders from Moscow? If so, why? Has the Russian government even acknowledged that they were paid from the Russian budget? We need to get back to a US-Russian understanding about how we're going to keep the peace in Syria. More importantly I don't think this situation is stable, where we've got military forces managed by different great powers — whether it's Turkey, or US, or Russia, or Iran, or now Israel getting into it. We have to have a political solution, a political transformation to create a Syria where all Syrians can return and feel safe and where all of us can get out.

Read moreSyria conflict: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want?

Infographic on armed factions in Syria

Ambassador Victoria Nuland is Chief Executive Officer at the Center for a New American Security. She served as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from September 2013 until January 2017 under President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to NATO during President George W. Bush's second term.

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