WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled improving prospects for cooperation in Syria Tuesday in what the White House called a “very good” phone discussion that included a focus on setting up safe zones in the war-torn nation.
The Kremlin said the leaders also agreed to try to set up their first in-person meeting in July, on the sidelines of an international summit in Germany. The White House later confirmed that information.
Tuesday’s call marked the first time Trump and Putin have spoken since the U.S. launched missiles against an air base in Syria, an attack that outraged Russia, one of the Syrian government’s strongest backers. The U.S. military action sparked new tensions between Washington and Moscow, with top U.S. officials sharply condemning Putin’s continued support for embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
But the leaders appeared to again be edging toward closer cooperation following Tuesday’s call. The Kremlin said Trump and Putin agreed to bolster diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war, which has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions more displaced. The White House announced it would send a top State Department official to Russian-led talks on Syria that begin Wednesday in Kazakhstan.
“President Trump and President Putin agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” the White House said. “The conversation was a very good one, and included the discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.”
The Kremlin characterized the call as “business-like” and “constructive.” It made no mention of safe zones.
Since taking office, Trump has been raising the prospect of safe zones in Syria with world leaders. The zones would be aimed at protecting civilians — and dissuading Syrian refugees from trying to come to the United States, one of Trump’s goals. But military leaders have warned that significant U.S. resources would be required to safeguard the regions.
Whether the U.S. and Russia can find a way forward is deeply uncertain. The U.S. has long sought Moscow’s help in Syria, where the civil war has created a vacuum for the Islamic State and other extremist groups. But Russia’s ongoing support for Assad has been a persistent roadblock.
As a candidate, Trump argued that the U.S. focus in Syria should be on terrorism, not seeking Assad’s removal from power. And he vowed to work with any country — particularly Russia — that wanted to play a role in that effort.
But last month, Trump was moved by the gruesome images of children killed in a chemical weapons attack that the U.S. has pinned on the Assad government. The U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base, marking the first time the U.S. has directly targeted the Syrian government since the conflict there began.
Some of Trump’s top advisers, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, leveled blistering criticism on Russia and Putin following the chemical weapons attack.
Yet Trump has continued to hold out the prospect of a stronger relationship with Russia, which was a cornerstone of his foreign policy platform as a presidential candidate. He took to Twitter days after the Syria strikes to say that “things will work out fine” between the U.S. and Russia and “everyone will come to their senses.”
The shifts in the Trump administration’s posture came amid a steady swirl of controversy surrounding possible ties between the president’s associates and Russia during last year’s election. The FBI and congressional committees are investigating whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia as it meddled in the election.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s vanquished Democratic opponent, said during a speaking appearance Tuesday that she was “on the way to winning” the election until “intervening events” in the campaign’s final days, including WikiLeaks’ release of hacked emails from one of her top advisers. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Russia was behind the hacking.
Putin, who met earlier Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, denied that Moscow ever interferes in other countries’ elections. He said accusations of Russian meddling aimed at helping Trump in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton were “simply rumors” being used as part of a political fight in Washington.
Trump has vigorously denied any nefarious ties to Moscow, calling the Russian investigations a “hoax.”
Tuesday’s call marked the third time Trump and Putin are known to have talked since the U.S. president took office in January. Both the White House and the Kremlin said the leaders also discussed North Korea’s nuclear provocations.