Russia has contacted Trump’s team about Syria, diplomat says
MOSCOW — Russia has been in contact over Syria with the team of President-elect Donald Trump, a senior Russian diplomat said Wednesday, shedding more light on the extent to which Trump’s transition team is pursuing his frequent campaign promise of working closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin to manage the Syrian crisis.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying that Russia had been in contact with ‘‘several people that we have known for a long time.’’
Bogdanov, who is President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa, declined to name specific Trump team members, adding only that Moscow hoped the relations with Washington over Syria would improve.
Bogdanov’s announcement followed the revelation that Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of the president-elect, conducted private talks before the election with diplomats and politicians in Paris on collaborating with Russia to end the conflict in war-torn Syria.
The president-elect’s son was one of some 30 people who assembled in a private room at the Paris Ritz on Oct. 11 for a summit arranged by the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), a think tank run by Fabien Baussart, a French businessman known for ties to Russian oligarchs who has made overtures to Putin’s Russia in the past to resolve the conflict.
The meeting also posed questions about the Trump campaign’s contact with nongovernmental foreign officials and operatives before the election. The campaign confirmed that the meeting, first reported in The Wall Street Journal, took place.
Just days after the election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said that government officials had conferred with members of Trump’s campaign team, an assertion later denied by Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
Relevant to the Paris meeting, the president-elect has spoken frequently about cooperating with Russia to fight the Islamic State, rather than following the current US policy of supporting rebels opposed to Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Putin has committed himself to supporting Assad’s regime, which has ruled out any deal with the rebel groups the United States has supported. Russia describes all rebel groups as ‘‘terrorists,’’ and Trump’s blanket statements about joining Russia have been seen in Moscow as tacitly supporting this view.
After the election, Russia kicked off a massive aerial and missile assault on Syrian rebel positions, just hours after Putin and Trump, speaking by phone, agreed to combine efforts in Syria to defeat what Moscow has said is its enemy in the fight: ‘‘international terrorism and extremism.’’
Randa Kassis, Baussart’s Syrian-born wife, documented the Paris meeting with Trump’s son on her Facebook page. She is president of the Movement for a Pluralistic Society, a Syrian opposition movement endorsed by Moscow that advocates working with Assad.
‘‘With Trump as the newly elected president, we can work to find a way to stop this war and start this political process,’’ Kassis told the Post. ‘‘For me, Clinton was really the worst, and could be the worst president concerning this fire in the Middle East — she supported Islamists, and when she was secretary of state, she armed Islamists on the ground in Syria.’’
On Nov. 8, Kassis met with Bogdanov, where, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, they ‘‘exchanged views on developments in Syria and around it, pointing to the need for an early political settlement of the Syrian crisis.’’
The next day, Kassis heralded Trump’s surprise election victory in Russian state-controlled media, telling the Sputnik News Agency that she had been in contact with the president-elect through his son. ‘‘I succeed to pass to Trump, through the talks with his son, the idea of how we can cooperate together to reach the agreement between Russia and the United States on Syria.’’
Kassis noted that, before the election, the group had also invited James Rubin, a former State Department spokesman and informal advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Trump never accepted US allegations that the Kremlin was interfering in the 2016 elections, even after the Obama administration officially accused Russia. Instead, the billionaire real estate developer staked out positions that were extremely friendly to the Kremlin throughout the campaign, calling for closer ties with Moscow.
During the campaign, Trump said Putin had ‘‘been a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been.’’