Russia Says Working with U.S. in Syria Would Be 'Ideal Solution' as Both Struggle to Defeat Last of ISIS

Moscow's top diplomat has said he wished the United States would have supported his country in their mutual battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which has resisted attempts to eradicate it in Syria.

In an interview Monday with Spanish newspaper El País, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled Russian President Vladimir Putin's September 2015 offer to form an alliance under the auspices of the United Nations to battle militant groups in Syria. Lavrov said this would have been "the ideal solution" to tackle ISIS, which the U.S. has fought as part of a separate coalition it created in 2014 without seeking permission from the Syrian government, an ally of Russia and Iran.

"It is regrettable since terrorists threaten all members of the international community and no one can take refuge in 'a safe harbor,'" Lavrov said of Washington's unwillingness to work with Moscow to finish off ISIS or find peace in Syria.

"By the way, I would like to point out the difference of status in the armed presence in Syria of the states mentioned. The Russian military is in Syrian territory at the request of the legitimate authorities of the country, but the presence of the USA is in the Syrian Arab Republic without the consent of its government," he added.

U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford (left), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Russian Army General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, at Königstedt Manor in Helsinki, Finland, on June 8. The U.S. and Russia have not established the close relations promised both by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. DOMINIQUE A. PINEIRO/U.S. Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images

Putin has long called for the international community to work together with Russia to battle designated terrorist organizations but faced a hostile stance from the U.S. under former President Barack Obama. Then-Republican candidate Donald Trump said months before the election that Moscow was accused of influencing that it would "be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS." In a telephone conversation just days after Trump's victory, he appeared eager to work with Russia in Syria.

A Kremlin readout of the conversation at the time stated that the two agreed to "unite efforts in the struggle against the common enemy number one—international terrorism and extremism" and that "in this vein, issues of resolving the crisis in Syria were also discussed." As Trump took office, this alliance became strained due to persistent accusations that the Republican leader colluded with Moscow in the presidential race as well as diverging views on the Syrian conflict.

Though Trump largely ended Obama-era attempts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad via a U.S.-sponsored rebel and jihadi insurgency, he also oversaw two rounds of strikes against Assad's government in the wake of alleged chemical weapons attacks. Both the U.S. and Russia helped wipe out ISIS by leading parallel offensives—the former through a mostly Kurdish alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the latter alongside the Syrian military and various militias, many supported by Iran—but they have failed to come together.

Coordination between the U.S. and Russia has remained limited to a deconfliction hotline designed to avoid international incidents, despite Moscow's appeals for Trump to enhance this cooperation. Following their most recent meeting in July, Trump appeared willing to support Russia's humanitarian efforts in Syria, but no conclusive agreement emerged in the following months.

In the meantime, ISIS continued to lose ground on both fronts. However, as both the U.S.-led and Russia-backed campaigns began their final push against the jihadis in September, the last steps have proven difficult and costly.

U.S. forces and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces patrol the Kurdish-held town of Al-Darbasiyah, in northeastern Syria, bordering Turkey, on November 4. The beleaguered U.S.-backed offensive against ISIS in eastern Syria was again delayed when fellow NATO member Turkey renewed strikes against Pentagon-sponsored Kurdish fighters. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Citing the Defense Department, the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve—the Pentagon's official anti-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria—said Monday in its official quarterly report that "ISIS has largely evolved from a land-holding terrorist entity to an insurgency with a network of clandestine cells" and "that U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces face a difficult fight against ISIS near Hajin," a town on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, one of the group's last physical holdouts.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have sustained a number of casualties in recent weeks as they struggled to advance. After Turkey launched strikes against Kurdish positions in northern Syria, the local U.S.-backed militia suspended its operations against ISIS. Turkey and the U.S. are both members of the NATO Western military alliance and opponents of Assad, but Ankara considers certain Kurdish groups to be terrorist organizations due to an ongoing insurgency at home.

When asked earlier this week if the Pentagon would condemn such strikes against Kurdish fighters as it did earlier Iranian attacks over ISIS positions just three miles from U.S. troops in eastern Syria, Central Command spokesperson Navy Captain Bill Urban simply told Newsweek, "The Syrian Democratic Forces have temporarily suspended offensive actions against ISIS in response to cross-border attacks by Turkey against SDF positions in Northern Syria. The SDF have been an essential coalition partner in the defeat of ISIS in Syria."

On the other side of the Euphrates River, pro-government fighters have also faced a harsh fight against jihadis, as have Syrian troops in another ISIS pocket in southern Syria's volcanic fields of Tulul al-Safa. The Syrian military also faces a ceasefire in its fight against the last bastion of the 2011 Islamist-led insurgency in the northwestern province of Idlib, where the U.S. threatened to intervene should a humanitarian disaster erupt.