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  • Associated Press A Syrian Central Military Media photo shows a tank firing on militants' positions on the Iraq-Syria border. Islamic State militants have withdrawn from their last stronghold in Syria along the border.

Friday, November 10, 2017 1:00 am

US, Russia close to deal on resolving Syrian war

Associated Press

Islamic State exits final stronghold

BEIRUT – Islamic State militants withdrew Thursday from their last stronghold in Syria, a strategic town near the border with Iraq, following a government offensive that has effectively left the extremist group's fighters dispersed in villages and small towns in the desert.

The Syrian military declared the town liberated after intense battles that killed a large number of militants, including leaders. The military said they are still chasing other IS militants in different directions in the desert. With the collapse of IS in Boukamal, Islamic State militants have no major territorial control in Syria and Iraq.

WASHINGTON – The United States and Russia are nearing an agreement on Syria for how they hope to resolve the Arab country's civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated, officials said Thursday.

If clinched, the deal could be announced by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after a meeting in Vietnam today, four U.S. officials said. The United States has been reluctant to hold a formal meeting between the leaders unless they have a substantive agreement to announce.

The potential understanding comes as an array of forces are near a final defeat of IS, the extremist group that once controlled vast stretches of both Iraq and Syria. Fighting the group is no longer top priority, shifting the focus back to Syria's intractable conflict between President Bashar Assad's government and rebels – and to concerns that foreign powers such as Iran will now dominate the country's future.

The U.S.-Russian agreement being discussed would focus on three elements, officials said: “deconfliction” between the U.S. and Russian militaries, reducing violence in the civil war and reinvigorating U.N.-led peace talks. The officials weren't authorized to discuss the deliberations and requested anonymity.

The U.S. and Russian militaries have maintained a “deconfliction” hotline for years to avoid unintended collisions and even potential confrontations as they each operate in Syria's crowded skies. A heavy air campaign by Russia has been credited with shoring up the position of Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

With IS nearing defeat, the U.S. and Russia are losing their common enemy in Syria and will remain in a proxy battle in which Russia backs Assad and the U.S. lends at least rhetorical support to armed opposition groups fighting the government. That has increased the need for close communication between the two powers about where their forces are operating at any given time, officials said.

The agreement also seeks to build on progress in establishing “de-escalation zones” in Syria that have calmed some parts of the country. In July, when Trump held his first meeting with Putin in Germany, the U.S. and Russia announced a deal that included Jordan and established a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The United States has said that cease-fire has largely held and could be replicated elsewhere in the country.

A key U.S. concern, shared by close ally Israel, is the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Syria that have exploited the vacuum of power. The United States and Israel have been seeking ways to prevent forces loyal to Iran – Israel's archenemy – from establishing a permanent presence. One idea hinges on a “buffer zone” along Israel's border with Syria.

A third element of the deal would reaffirm support for the United Nations effort being run out of Geneva to seek a political transition in Syria and resolve the civil war. The United States and Russia have been at odds for years over whether Assad could be allowed to remain in power in a future Syrian government.