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Russia presses Europe to break with Trump and help rebuild Syria

Henry Meyer and Arne Delfs, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

MOSCOW -- Russia is urging Germany and France to break ranks with their American ally and help rebuild Syria so that refugees can go home, a senior adviser to the Russian government said.

There's little prospect of a deal with the U.S., which is now vowing to keep troops in Syria until Iran withdraws, Vitaly Naumkin said in an interview. Russia is instead focused on efforts to organize a Syria summit in Turkey with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The plan is being held up by European demands for a transition away from Bashar Assad's rule.

"I don't see why Europe should always bow down to Washington,'' said Naumkin, a top Russian aide on Syria policy. "If Europe thinks we can get rid of Assad and some moderate opposition forces will come to power, they're living in fantasy land. Radicals will take over that (and) will slit people's throats.''

On some Middle East issues, such as defending the Iran nuclear deal, the European Union has sided with Russia in opposition to U.S. policy under Donald Trump. And Merkel in particular has a motive to help Syria recover from its civil war. The admission of some half a million Syrians, amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, contributed to the rise of far-right movements that have weakened her hold on power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin confronted Merkel with the need for money to rebuild Syria when they met at the German government's retreat outside Berlin in August. As he did so, Putin underlined the threat that more refugees could make their way to Europe.

But neither Merkel nor the rest of Europe has fallen in line with Russia over Syria. For Putin, that increases the risk of getting stuck in a quagmire. His military intervention succeeded in shoring up Assad, but the bill for postwar reconstruction is estimated at $250 billion by the United Nations, and Western powers are rejecting Russian appeals to chip in.

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"Why don't you want to help people returning to Syria, even in government-held areas?'' said Naumkin, the head of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow and a member of the Kremlin-backed Valdai discussion club. He called on European nations to rebuild homes, schools, hospitals and roads.

EU and U.S. leaders say Assad is largely to blame for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people during the war, and stability is impossible under his rule.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said last month that his country will help pay for reconstruction if there's a political solution leading to free elections. But while Assad remains in power, Germany won't contribute, according to two German officials familiar with Syria policy -- because Assad is seen in Berlin as the main obstacle to such a process.

France won't attend the summit in Turkey without a guarantee that there'll be progress toward a political transition, according to a senior French diplomat.

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