The photographs showing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smiling and slapping palms with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are being circulated by many Syrians opposed to the Bashar al-Assad's regime as visual obituaries of their cause. Weren't these men supposed to be on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict? And why does the Herman Munster-ish Lavrov look happier than his American counterpart?
Perhaps because the atmospherics of Kerry's recent visit to Moscow were meant to show that his hosts were under no illusions as to who was the more desperate and bowed party. First, Kerry's motorcade sat in Moscow traffic for a half hour because of a military parade rehearsal for Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin kept Kerry waiting for three hours before granting him an audience, upon which he fiddled with his pen and more resembled a man indulging a long-ago scheduled visit from the cultural attaché of Papua New Guinea than participating in an urgent summit with America's top diplomat.
The pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia claimed that Kerry had been "counting on convincing Moscow not to block sanctions against Damascus. It didn't work." Even if false, the framing of the story provides good insight into how the Russian government viewed these talks. And in the end, Kerry gave Putin exactly what he wanted: Washington's assent to a renewed push for negotiations to end the geopolitical catastrophe in Syria.
Sometime before May is behind us, the United States and Russia will host a conference based on the parameters of the Geneva Protocol, which was agreed to late June 2012 under the auspices of the United Nations. The communiqué calls for a "Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people." To pave the way such an agreement, the document demands the end to armed violence by both sides, the release of political prisoners, granting journalists freedom of movement throughout the country, and the "[c]onsolidation of full calm and stability." Since this would-be roadmap was cobbled together almost a year ago, more than 50,000 Syrians have died in the Assad regime's desperate attempt to crush the uprising.
The underlying assumptions are that Russia can "produce" Assad or his representatives, pressuring them to attend this confab, and that the United States can produce both the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition with which it has chosen to partner, namely the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Command, headed by Gen. Salim Idris. Neither of the latter bodies existed when the Geneva Protocol was first introduced, and Idris now finds himself forced to do what Russia's clients in this conflict never have to do -- beg.
Indeed, while Assad imports long-range missiles from Iran and allows Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Suleimani to build a 150,000-strong sectarian militia to inherit the responsibilities of the Syrian military, Idris is writing open letters to his patron asking for more help. The U.S. response is to ask Idris's men to kill al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters first, and only then turn their attention back to President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Syria has allegedly been subjected to sarin gas attacks, seen the deaths of more than 70,000 people and the displacement of nearly a quarter of its entire population, and become a haven for a growing and ambitious al Qaeda franchise. Now Kerry wants the world to believe that it can travel back in time and revive a diplomatic initiative that was stillborn even at the time. It's not going to work.
As the Russians like to remind the world, nowhere in the Geneva Protocol is there a demand that Assad must resign or even promise not to take power again in future. John Kerry appears to agree: In a joint press conference in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the secretary of state offered this stark reappraisal of President Barack Obama's repeated insistence that Assad quit the scene. "[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," he said. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."
Kerry was forced to hastily repudiate his wishy-washiness in Rome by reminding reporters of the original U.S. stance. But his initial response may convince the Russians that the U.S. position on Assad's departure is negotiable.
Kerry's comment about Assad's future mirrored Obama's now-notorious "red line" on the use or mobilization of chemical weapons. After the White House admitted that Assad likely used chemical weapons against his own people -- a step that Obama once said would be a "grave mistake" -- America's next diplomatic move on Syria was this effort to revive moribund peace talks.