What explains US-Russia tango over Syria
A 5-hour meeting between a visiting foreign minister and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only rare but difficult to recall. Putin makes rare exceptions to receive foreign ministers. And he always receives them after their talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. By all these yardsticks, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Putin last Thursday in the Kremlin was extraordinary.
He drove into the Kremlin straight after touching down in Moscow Thursday evening and had talks with Putin lasting till 1 am in the wee hours of Friday morning. Putin’s rare appearance for a joint press briefing with a foreign minister (Kerry), Puitn’s ‘body language’ and, of course, the subsequent joint press conference by Kerry and Lavrov — they distinctly sought to convey the impression that the US and Russia were on to a big joint venture apropos the Syrian conflict. (here and here)
None of the three statesmen – neither Putin and Lavrov nor Kerry – was even remotely affected by the negative energy radiated by the high-profile summit meeting of the NATO, which had taken place in Warsaw hardly four days ago whose leitmotif was the strong determination of the western alliance to defend and deter Russia’s perceived aggressive tendencies in Eurasia.
Kerry is going to meet a select group of European allies later today in London to brief them on “the concrete steps that the U.S. and Russia are planning to take”. He disclosed that he had a phone conversation with Lavrov on Tuesday, and,
- We both [with Lavrov] believe that we have understanding of the direction we are going in and what needs to be achieved. Our teams will meet shortly in order to continue to do that, in order to bolster the cessation of hostilities, in order to increase our capacity to fight against Al Qaeda, an Nusra, as well as fight back against ISIL.
It all sounds too good to be true. But then, Kerry is a seasoned diplomat with 30 years as a senator behind him during which he also headed the senate foreign relations committee and now as America’s top diplomat for over 3 years. Why is the US all of a sudden giving such hype to a peace project with Russia, an aggressive regional power, to kickstart a political process Syria?
The US has always sought a “selective engagement” of Russia on issues of concern to Washington while pursuing the containment strategy on another track. Lavrov may have gently rubbed this in when Kerry phoned him on Thursday to discuss the “concrete steps” on Syria as follow-up to his talks in the Kremlin last week. Curiously, the Russian Foreign Ministry readout makes a wry reference to Lavrov also, inter alia, availing of the opportunity to gently remind Kerry how the Obama administration is also simultaneously moving heaven and earth to humiliate Russia on another front by keeping it out of the Rio Olympics. These seasoned diplomats must be having the hide of rhinoceros — the readout says, “Mr. Kerry agreed that sports should not be politicized”. (here)
Won’t Moscow be aware that Kerry might even be dissimulating a concord with Russia over Syria? Won’t Moscow know that the Obama administration is on its last leg and time has run out? The point is, there is a powerful lobby in Washington, including the Pentagon and apparently within the State Department itself, which opposes any form of US-Russia cooperation in Syria that does not lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in a near term. (Read a briefing by the Brookings Institution, on the hawkish opinion in Washington.)
Indeed, the US is engaging Russia assiduously against the backdrop of the dramatic events in Turkey. The ground has shifted in the geopolitics of the region. Interestingly, Kerry made the hurried unscheduled trip to Moscow last week within 4 days of the NATO summit even as the failed coup attempt was getting under way in Turkey. Actually, Kerry was about to meet with Putin in the Kremlin — or had been conversing with him already –even as the coup began in Turkey. Something doesn’t quite gel here, isn’t it? Suffice it to say, much depends on how far back Kerry (Obama administration) actually had known about the coup that was in the making in Turkey. (Read a breath-taking, blow-by-blow account of the ‘Turkish coup’ by senior editor Murat Yetkin in today’s Hurriyet.)
Of course, the failed coup in Turkey becomes a defining moment for the Syrian conflict. The Turkish military and state intelligence – and the political leadership – are all passing through such turbulence that Ankara simply lacks the presence of mind or the sheer capacity to continue to pursue an interventionist policy in Syria in a foreseeable future. Meanwhile, great uncertainties have crept into Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe. Moscow cannot but be aware that Turkey desperately needs to hold the Russian hand — and that indeed adds to Russia’s politico-military options in Syria. The thinking is reflected in a commentary by a top Kremlin pundit Fyodor Lukyanov in Moscow Times.
Clearly, the US policies on Syria are floundering. The Syrian forces have laid siege to Aleppo and the US-backed rebels are trapped inside the city, while Turkey may have begun disengaging from reaching aid to them. Washington has no option but to engage Moscow to work out some sort of face-saving compromise formula.
But what does Russia get in return? Participation in Rio Olympics? It shouldn’t be surprising if the International Olympics Committee has a last-minute change of heart and says ‘Da‘ to the Russian team, finally. If that happens, it will be in the best traditions of Russian-American trade-offs, and Kerry worked hard on it.
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