A Critical Meeting in Moscow

July 20, 2016

The need for US-Russian cooperation for the resolution of Middle East problems, prominently among them the Syrian conflict, had been obvious from the start (1). On February 22, the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Since then, it has also been obvious that reaching a common understanding on “who is a terrorist and who is not” would be a key issue (2). Because, under the terms of the “Cessation”, Russia and the US were expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which were excluded from the cessation of hostilities. This was to prove a difficult task in view of the complicated ground situation and the diverse interests involved.

On July 14-15, Secretary Kerry held talks with President Putin and Minister Lavrov in Moscow. At the end of their talks Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov held a joint press conference (3). They announced that they had agreed on some concrete steps which will not be made public because there is need for more work. Earlier, Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reported that Obama administration’s new proposal to Russia on Syria would be more extensive than previously known; that it would open the way for deep cooperation between U.S. and Russian military and intelligence agencies and coordinated air attacks by American and Russian planes on Syrian rebels deemed to be terrorists, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch.

Below are excerpts from the Kerry-Lavrov press conference:
“Russia and the United States have come together with the belief, as Sergey expressed, that when Russia and the United States put their mind to it and try deliberately and with purpose to have an impact on an issue – as we did on chemical weapons in Syria, as we did with respect to the Joint Plan of Action for Iran, as we did in passing a monumental initiative in Paris on climate change – when we come together with that purpose, we have an ability to make a difference…
“Now, the concrete steps that we’ve agreed on are not going to be laid out in public in some long list because we want them to work and because they need more work in order to work. I want to emphasize, though, they are not based on trust. They defined specific, sequential responsibilities all parties to the conflict must assume with the intent of stopping altogether the indiscriminate bombing of the Assad regime and stepping up our efforts against al-Nusrah.
“… And I know and Sergey knows that there are spoilers who will make every effort to try to disrupt this initiative, and we also know – and this is important – the results will not be tomorrow or the next day. They will not be immediate…
“… if some critic is criticizing the United States or Russia for going after al-Nusrah, which is a terrorist organization, because they’re good fighters against Assad, they have their priorities completely screwed up…
“Now, we continue – not one iota of our policy has changed with respect to the Assad regime. We still believe that Syria can’t have peace while Assad is there. We believe that. We have a difference with Russia on that. But notwithstanding that difference, we both believe it is important for us to try to reestablish the cessation of hostilities.
“And when we first came to the table in Vienna and I proposed a ceasefire, put it on the table, it was not Russia or Iran that said no. Both of them said yes, we should have a ceasefire. But there were others at the table who opposed proceeding forward with a ceasefire, and some of them, unfortunately, I think, may regret that today. But the point is simply that we have consistently been working towards the full implementation of a ceasefire.
“Now, final comment. It gets very confusing, obviously, on the ground with respect to who’s who and who’s where, and that’s part of the homework we’re going to do in order to absolutely be able to be clearer to people about who is supported by whom and who needs to change their behavior in order to adhere to the ceasefire itself…”

“… Back in Soviet time, we do remember the history in Afghanistan where some of our counterparts supported the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, believing that the Mujaheddin would help them inflict maximum damage against Soviet forces and later they will be able to tame those Mujaheddin. But tame them they have not managed to do, and those Mujaheddin later morphed into al-Qaida, which on September 11th, 2001 committed a horrible terrorist attack in New York, after which our countries had to unite against terrorism.
“We also have the more recent example in Libya, where countries that were determined to overthrow Qadhafi did not shy away from cooperating with certain terrorist groups, and we all see what’s – where this has gotten us. Today Libya is a den of terrorism. It is a country which is in the hands of radicals and the weapons supplied to anti-Qadhafi groups have spread out all across the region and now we are all doing our best to keep this country together and keep it from falling apart and becoming a festering pit for terrorists.
“… we have agreed that ISIS and the al-Nusrah Front are terrorist groups and they are exempt from any ceasefire arrangements. They are supposed to be eliminated. They are our common enemies, and the ISSG has clearly decided and has clearly agreed that the opposition groups in Syria that do not want to be associated with terrorists and that are willing to join the ceasefire and become parties to the ceasefire, they must separate themselves from ISIS and the al-Nusrah Front, including geographic separation – they must physically separate themselves and geographically separate themselves from the terrorists so that nobody would be able to speculate that in some – in certain areas in Syria, the terrorists are mixed and intertwined with the moderate opposition…”

Kerry-Lavrov press conferences always merit careful reading. This last one was particularly interesting because Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov reiterated, in no uncertain language, their determination to work together to bring the Syrian conflict to an end and fight terrorism though what would be achieved on the ground remains to be seen. And, for the first time, Mr. Kerry openly expressed Washington’s frustration with its regional allies without calling names. Who else would have opposed the ceasefire in Syria and criticize Moscow and Washington for going after al-Nusrah because they’re good fighters against Assad. The cost of the Syrian conflict rising and Syria’s immediate neighbors are paying the highest price. This could be their last opportunity to give their unqualified support to Syria’s political transition.

(1) US and Russia Need to Cooperate, 31 May 2015.
US and Russia Need to Cooperate (2), 11 June 2015.
The Unhappy Trajectory of US-Russia Relations, October 12, 2015.
(2) Syria: “Cessation of Hostilities”, February 29, 2016.
Russia’s Intervention in Syria (3), April 5, 2015.
Time to Boost Syria’s Political Transition, May 9, 2016.
US, Russia and Their Regional Allies, May 19, 2016
(3) http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/07/260134.htm

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