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By Yara Bayoumy and John Walcott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Moscow on Thursday to again seek closer Russian cooperation in the war against Islamic State in Syria, but he faces strong opposition from defense and intelligence officials who argue that Washington and Moscow have diametrically opposite objectives in the country.
Kerry's trip, which State Department officials say is his second to the Russian capital this year and his third in 12 months, takes place as U.S.-Russian relations have worsened with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, aggressive Russian maneuvers toward U.S. aircraft and vessels, and a disregard for a cessation of hostilities in Syria, where Russia has bombed U.S.-backed rebels.
Relations between Moscow and Washington also remain strained over the Ukraine crisis and what the Kremlin considers NATO’s unjustified activities along its borders, raising fears that disagreements could escalate into confrontations, either accidental in Syria or the result of miscalculations in the air and naval encounters from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
Yet Kerry, it seems, still hopes for closer collaboration with Russia, to the disbelief of many officials who say the Obama administration has no strategy on how to deal with the challenges Russia poses in Europe and Syria.
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"It isn't clear why the secretary of state thinks he can enlist the Russians to support the administration's goals in Syria," said one U.S. intelligence official.
"He's ignoring the fact that the Russians and their Syrian allies have made no distinction between bombing ISIS and killing members of the moderate opposition, including some people that we’ve trained," the official said, using an acronym for the militant group. "Why would we share intelligence and targeting information with people who’ve been doing that?"
The targeting problem is compounded by the fact that rebels groups often operate in close proximity with one another and at times have fought both for and against one another. The Nusra Front, an offshoot of al Qaeda, has frequently operated in close proximity to rebels deemed moderate by the West, including some that have received military training and support from the CIA and Arab members of the U.S.-led coalition. ANGRY SPIES
U.S. intelligence officers are incensed by the administration's continued overtures to Russia, in part because they say the Russians knew that two rebel camps they bombed last month and again this week were far from any Islamic State fighters and housed U.S.-backed rebels or their families.
Last month a U.S. official said Russia launched a second air strike on U.S.-backed Syrian fighters battling Islamic State, even after the U.S. military used emergency channels to ask Moscow to stop after the first strike.
Another attack on Tuesday killed at least 12 people at a nearby base, four U.S. intelligence officers said.
The camps, the officials said, are in a no-man’s-land on Syria’s border with Jordan devoid of any Syrian troops or Islamic State fighters, and the Russians attacked it deliberately, the officials said.
It was not immediately possible to seek comment from officials in Moscow.
Other officials argue it is naïve to think that because the Russians say they, too, are seeking a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war - which, according to the United Nations, has claimed some 400,000 lives - Moscow’s goal is compatible with that of the United States and its Arab and European allies.
"It’s pretty obvious that their agenda is not 100 percent aligned with our own," U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, told a small group of reporters in Baghdad on Thursday. "I’d be a little leery about giving too much information to the Russians, but I fully trust that our government officials understand this and know they’ll arrive at something that makes sense."
"The Russians want a settlement that would keep (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or some replacement acceptable to them in power," said a defense official, who like others who discussed the schism in the administration agreed to do so only on condition of anonymity.
"The president has said that Assad has got to go, and our allies, especially the Saudis, hold that view very strongly. In fact, they keep asking us why we’re cozying up to Moscow."Assad said in an interview broadcast on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin has never talked to him about leaving power, despite pressure from Washington for Assad to step down.
"They never said a single word regarding this," Assad told NBC News when asked whether Putin or Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had talked to him about a political transition in Syria, where a civil war has raged since 2011. "ANOTHER GO"
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Kerry was going to Russia "yet again" to have "another go" at getting Moscow to buy in to a process that could lead to a nationwide cessation of hostilities.
"There are areas with regard to Syria and how to resolve the conflict on which we agree," he said. However, he added: “While we have reached those overarching agreements, we have not seen the practical reality on the ground yet.”
But even some of Kerry’s own State Department subordinates question why their boss is trying to move forward, meeting on Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and on Friday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – in Moscow, no less, said one – when U.S.-Russian relations are slipping backward.
The latest evidence of that came on Wednesday, when Russia refused to let Jeff Shell, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Free Europe and other government-backed news outlets, enter the country.
A board statement said Shell was denied entry and detained in a locked room at Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport for several hours on Tuesday despite having a valid passport and Russian visa.
Accompanied by Russian security officials, he later boarded a flight to Amsterdam and was told he was subject to a "lifetime ban" from Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Shell had been on a 'stop list' for a long time, adding that he was "one of the organizers of lying anti-Russian propaganda, financed from the American budget, that is implementing the political decisions taken at the very top of the U.S."
His treatment is consistent with his name being on a blacklist of individuals Russia has decided to block, though Moscow has shrugged off accusations that U.S. officials in Russia were facing increased harassment.
Last month, Washington expelled two Russian officials in response to what it described as a Russian policeman's attack on a U.S. diplomat in Moscow earlier that month.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not have immediate comment.
"I think quite frankly (Kerry's) visit is a microcosm of the confusion about U.S. policy toward Russia," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
"It's a lot of political capital to send the secretary of state if you don't have a clear objective of what you want to accomplish," she told Reuters.
(This story corrects timing, details, death tolls of strikes in paragraphs 8-10)
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Andrew Osborn and Jason Bush in Moscow, Phil Stewart in Baghdad and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Michael Perry)