It can now be said with confidence that US Secretary of State Kerry’s trip to Moscow was a failure (see our previous article).
Despite engaging Russian President Putin in talks that went on past midnight, and having further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov the following day which lasted 8 hours, the talks ended with no public announcement, as there certainly would have been if the two countries had reached agreement. There apparently was a joint press conference involving Kerry and Lavrov, but it was a very subdued and under-reported affair, which broke no new ground. Instead Kerry left Moscow quietly, probably relieved that the Turkish coup had drawn attention away from his trip.
As we reported before, the US offer to Russia – essentially an offer of a junior place in a US led coalition against Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh in return for Russia’s agreement to the eventual overthrow of President Assad – was hardly one to appeal to Moscow. The Russians, in what look like difficult talks, will have pointed this out.
Though reports of the talks are sketchy, it seems the Russians instead tried to pressure Kerry and the US to return to the course the two sides agreed back in February: a “cessation of hostilities” between the Syrian government and its opponents excluding terrorist groups like Daesh, Jabhat Al Nusra and their affiliates, the separation of US backed rebels from Jabhat Al Nusra, and an exchange of information between the US and the Russians to enable each of them to continue with their respective bombing campaigns against Jabhat Al Nusra and Daesh without either interfering with the other.
It is now clear that that course is no longer acceptable to the hardliners in the US because it leaves Syrian President Assad in place and hands the initiative to the Russians. That is why Kerry went to Moscow: to get the Russians to agree to scrap the February agreement by dangling them an offer which would enable the US to achieve its objectives in Syria in return for what were actually no more than symbolic concessions to the Russians.
It is possible the Russians also sought to build on the February agreeing by suggesting – in a counter to Kerry’s proposal – that the US and the Russians actually exchange targeting information so as to guide each other’s bombers, thereby in effect merging their bombing campaigns whilst however maintaining their separate chains of command. However that would have made Russia an equal partner of the US in the military campaign in Syria, an idea that is most unlikely to appeal to the US, and which would have meant the US effectively abandoning their effort to overthrow President Assad. If the Russians did make such a proposal, Kerry would almost certainly have rejected it.
The absence of a public statement and the lack of any meaningful disclosures from the joint press conference in fact points to a different outcome: deadlock. It could hardly be otherwise when the objectives of the two sides in Syria remain so different and so visibly in conflict.
The famous “letter of protest” by the fifty hardliners in the State Department was almost certainly orchestrated by Kerry to pressure Obama to agree to his plan to scrap the February agreement with the Russians. It seems Kerry may have genuinely believed he could get the Russians to agree to scrap the February plan in return for his “offer” – which he previously arranged to have leaked to the Washington Post – which is why he went with his “offer” to Moscow. If that was his intention Kerry has now discovered otherwise. It remains to be seen what he and the other hardliners in the US will now do.