The Washington Post                30/11/2016

Russia has been in contact over Syria with the team of President-elect Donald Trump, a senior Russian diplomat said Wednesday, suggesting that Moscow is already looking past the Obama administration when it comes to the crisis in Syria.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by the state-run Tass news agency as saying that Russia had been in communication with “several people that we have known for a long time.”

Bogdanov, President Vladi­mir Putin’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa, declined to name the Trump team members, adding only that Moscow hoped that relations with Washington over Syria would improve under the incoming administration.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was unable “to confirm information about contacts” between Russia and Trump’s team. “As far as we know, the new team of the president-elect has yet to be formed,” Peskov said. He added that negotiations about Syria and other conflict areas “are continuing with our partners of the current administration of the U.S. president.”

Bogdanov’s announcement followed the revelation that Donald Trump Jr., the oldest son of the president-elect, had private talks before the election with diplomats and politicians in Paris on collaborating with Russia to end the conflict in Syria.

Trump Jr. was one of about 30 people who assembled in a private room at the Ritz Paris on Oct. 11 for a summit arranged by the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs, a think tank run by Fabien Baussart, a French businessman known for ties to Russian oligarchs who has made overtures to Russia 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 Ryabkov said government officials had conferred with members of Trump’s campaign, an assertion later denied by his spokeswoman Hope Hicks.

The president-elect has spoken frequently about cooperating with Russia to fight the Islamic State militant group, rather than following the current U.S. policy of supporting rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s longtime ally.

Putin has committed to supporting Assad’s regime, which has ruled out any deal with the rebel groups that 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.

On Wednesday, Putin again expressed hope that Trump’s election would herald better relations between Moscow and Washington.

“Now that the election campaign in the United States is over and a new president is about to move into the White House, it is to be hoped that there will emerge a chance to establish relations crucial not only to both countries, but also to ensure international stability and security,” he said at the international forum in Moscow.

Putin did not mention Syria in the comments, but it looms as one of the critical tests for any possible shifts by Washington.

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 Jr. on her Facebook page. She is the president of the Movement of the Pluralistic Society, a Syrian opposition group 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 Washington Post. “For me, [Hillary] 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 and, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, “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, she heralded Trump’s surprise election victory over Clinton in Russian state-controlled media, telling the Sputnik news agency that she had been in contact with him 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,” she said.

Kassis noted that, before the election, the group had also invited James Rubin, a former State Department spokesman and informal adviser tothe Clinton campaign.

Trump never accepted U.S. allegations that the Kremlin was interfering in the presidential election, even after the Obama administration accused Russia. Instead, the billionaire real estate developer staked out positions that were friendly to the Kremlin, calling for closer ties with Moscow.

There have been questions about whether Trump’s ties with Russia might be influenced by his business interests there. He made millions of dollars by taking the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013, and Trump Jr. said in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” In the second presidential debate, though, Trump categorically denied having business interests in Russia.

Several Trump advisers also had well-publicized ties to Russia, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a Trump national security adviser, sat next to Putin last year during a dinner held by the Kremlin-funded television channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today.

During the election campaign, Trump said Putin had “been a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been.”