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Syria is sticking point between Russia and U.S. on defeating Islamic State

— As the United States worked to build an international coalition for expanded strikes against the Islamic State, Russia has taken the opportunity to say “we told you so” and hedged broader support until the Syrian government gets a larger role.

The Kremlin has no trouble with the intended target — like the United States, Russia wants the Islamic State destroyed and thinks it must be defeated in Syria and Iraq.

But as Syria’s unofficial patron and interlocutor in international discussions about how to confront the Islamic State, Russia has been insistent that U.S. moves to target militants in Syria lack authority without buy-in from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. President Obama has said he will not directly coordinate planned strikes against the Islamic State with Assad, although the Syrian army is fighting the group, too.

In the past, competing allegiances in the Syrian conflict have not blocked all cooperation. Last year, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered an agreement to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to international control, narrowly avoiding U.S. airstrikes. But the near-complete erosion of trust between the two countries since then — and pervasive suspicion about the United States’ motives — complicates the chances of a similar breakthrough.

“There’s quite widespread suspicion here that the U.S. will start to bomb the Islamic State but will end up bombing the Syrian army,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow-based analyst and head of an advisory panel to the Kremlin on foreign and defense policy. “Russia is certainly not keen on making the situation in the Middle East more difficult for Americans than it is. But why help them? . . . It doesn’t seem to be in Russia’s interest to get directly involved.”

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