July 16, 2016

Kerry - Lavrov talks in Moscow on Syria - why the secrecy?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and American Secretary of State John Kerry met in Moscow to try and salvage the all-but-dead Syrian "cessation of hostilities" agreement. The talks revolved around a rather ambitious American proposal that was probably - and not unexpectedly - rejected out of hand by the Russians.

The American proposal, about eight pages long, can be read here (PDF file), and consists of two documents:

- Approach for Practical Russian-American Cooperation against Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra and Strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities
- Terms of Reference for the Joint Implementation Group

In a nutshell, the U.S. proposed that the Syrian Air Force be prohibited from conducting offensive sorties in "designated areas." Designated areas will be established by the Russian and American officers at a joint center in Amman, Jordan. These are basically anywhere ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusrah and the anti-regime opposition are located.

The proposal effectively grounds the Syrian Air Force except for humanitarian and emergency flights. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah - as well as a few other specifically designated "terrorist" groups - will be targeted and attacked by U.S.-led coalition or Russian aircraft, after coordination, targeting, weaponeering, etc. at the joint center. The proposal mentioned the possibility of "integrated missions" between the Russians and the U.S-led coalition.

Thus, the anti-regime rebels will not come under attack, at least from the air, sort of declaring a "no-fly zone lite." This would be a tough sell - the Syrian Air Force has been almost exclusively bombing these non-terrorist targets despite the in-name-only "cessation of hostilities." Not to be outdone, the overwhelming majority of Russian Air Force strikes have targeted these rebel groups as well - some of these groups have been supported by covert American programs.

I should note that many American senior military officers and State Department personnel were against much of the intelligence and technical capability sharing aspects of the proposed arrangement with the Russians. Their arguments held little sway with either Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of Secretary Kerry - they wanted a deal. Some would say they wanted a deal just to say they have a deal.

After the meeting in Moscow, Secretary Kerry announced only that a tentative deal had been reached, but refused to discuss the exact terms. Since Mr. Kerry has an abysmal track record in negotiating with the Russians - the Syrian chemical weapons deal and Russian input to the Iran nuclear deal spring to mind - I will let you read his rather convoluted words.

Note: When Mr. Kerry refers to the "two serious problems," he is referring to two issues addressed at the meeting - Syrian Air Force bombing operations and how to deal with the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front). Note the lack of the mention of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Secretary Kerry: "We agreed to steps that, if implemented in good faith, can address two serious problems that I just described about the cessation of hostilities. It is possible to help restore the cessation of hostilities, significantly reduce violence and help create the space for a genuine political transition.

"However, the concrete steps that we have 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, that they are not based on trust, but on specific steps that needed to be taken by both sides.

"So we’re not here promising the world. Not here tonight to suggest that overnight things are going to change. [The deal] has the opportunity to change the playing field significantly. Let the proof be in the pudding, not our words."

I take all that Kerry-speak to mean the proposal was rejected by the Russians and the resulting "concrete steps" are so far removed from the original terms that it would be embarrassing to compare the two. Just like with the Iran deal, we'll have to wait for the Russians to tell us just how well they outplayed John Kerry - again.

The Russians are skilled negotiators, and President Vladimir Putin has been relentless in pursuing what he believes are his national security interests in Syria. Paramount of those interests is continued Russian access to the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, and now likely continued access to Syrian air bases. Integral to achieving those national security goals is a friendly, if not pliable, government in Damascus. The current president of Syria, Bashar al-Asad, is both.

Knowing that the continued fight against al-Qa'idah and its affiliated groups throughout the region is a key tenet of the Obama Administration's policy, the Russians have offered to coordinate air operations against Jabhat al-Nusrah. While that sounds like a good idea, and no doubt will get Kerry's attention, the terrorist group is focused on the removal of the al-Asad regime.

Joint American-Russian attacks on the group actually plays right into Putin's hand - hurting Jabhat al-Nusrah directly supports Russia's goal to prop up the al-Asad regime. Keeping Bashar in power is key.

I find it troubling that the Russians are privy to an American-Russian agreement, but the American people are not.

Why the secrecy, Mr. Kerry? Is what you agreed to that bad?