Lavrov and Kerry ended 12 hours of talks in Geneva about Syria on Friday, but it is difficult to see what if anything of substance they achieved.
On the key political question – the Geneva peace process and the future of President Assad – they are as far apart as ever. The US continues to insist that President Assad must go as the inevitable of any peace settlement. The Russians say that is strictly for the Syrian people to decide. There was clearly no movement by either side on this issue.
A great part of the talks was devoted to the issue of supposedly separating the so-called “moderate rebels” from Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, the better to allow the US and Russia to bomb both. The US supposedly provided the Russians with a list of who they say these “moderate rebels” are.
This was however supposedly agreed between the US and the Russians as long ago as February. Here we are at the end of August still discussing the same question. There is no sign that the “moderate rebels” in Syria are prepared to separate or dissociate themselves from Jabhat Al-Nusra. On the contrary in the “Great Battle of Aleppo” – to a chorus of praise from the Western media – they are fighting ever more closely with each other.
Better communications have supposedly been established between the Russian military command at Khmeimim air base in Syria and the US military command in Jordan. Whilst this is always welcome, it is not at all clear what it means in practice.
The Russians and the US politely agreed to differ on the Turkish capture of Jarablus. The US actively supports the move, providing air support to the Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies involved in the operation. The Russians point out – correctly – that the Turks and the US are acting illegally.
There was apparently much discussion about the technical aspects concerning the coordination between the Russian and US militaries in Syria. It is not clear why this had to involve the Foreign Ministers of the two countries, who are both civilian officials, and could not have been dealt with at a lower level, in discussions between the technical and military experts. In any event Lavrov has confirmed that full agreement on these technical issues was not reached and that more discussions between the technical and military experts will follow.
Lastly there was some agreement about providing humanitarian supplies to Aleppo, with the UN’s Staffan de Mistura involved in this part of the discussions. It appears that this agreement is based on de Mistura’s and the Russians’ proposals for 48 hour weekly ceasefires.
In the end when pressed to say what the meeting with Kerry had actually achieved, Lavrov could only say that
“It is an achievement that we have been able to reduce areas of misunderstanding and to reduce the level of mutual mistrust between the two countries.”
When a diplomat of Lavrov’s experience can only point to reducing “the areas of misunderstanding” and “the level of mutual distrust” as the “achievement” of a summit, then it is clear that on all the substantive issues there is complete deadlock.
Both countries continue to support their respective sides and are obviously not prepared to compromise either on that support or on the attainment of their mutually conflicting objectives. What they are doing is seeking to manage the conflict between them so as to prevent it from spiralling dangerously out of control. To what extent they can achieve even that is debatable, especially given that there are people in Washington who show no willingness to accept any restraint on their behaviour at all.
On the issue of achieving peace in Syria – or in any part of it – there is no sign of any progress at all.