April 12, 2017

Secretary of State Tillerson visit to Moscow - my initial readout

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has completed his first visit to Moscow, in which he met with his Russian Federation counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. After the meetings, Tillerson and Lavrov held a press conference. I was "in the chair" in my role as a CNN military analyst.

Here is my initial readout of the meetings, based on the two officials' statements and responses to media questions. I will limit my comments to Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I found four points of significance.

April 4 nerve agent attack
The American and Russian positions on the April 4 chemical warfare attack on the civilian population of the city of Khan Shaykhun, located in Idlib governorate about 20 miles north of the city of Hamah, could not be further apart.

According to Secretary Tillerson, echoing comments from U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis a day earlier, there is no doubt on the part of the United States that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad "planned, authorized and executed" the attack. The use of the nerve agent sarin constituted a violation of both international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention to which Syria is a signatory.

Russia does not dispute the use of the nerve agent. It would be difficult to say otherwise since several organizations have conducted tests of the victims and have confirmed the presence of sarin.

The Russians further do not dispute the claim that the Syrian Air Force conducted an airstrike in the area of the incident, again, difficult to refute since the U.S. Air Force provided radar tracking data that shows Syrian fighter aircraft taking off from al-Sha'ayrat air base, flying to Khan Shaykhun, dropping weapons and returning to base.

The Russians disagree that the Syrian pilots dropped bombs filled with sarin. They claim that conventional high-explosive bombs struck what they believed was a weapons depot belonging to an al-Qa'idah affiliated group. Instead of the expected secondary detonations from explosives in the building, smoke and gas leaked out and was carried by the wind over the city. The Russians state that the gas dispersed by the bombing of the building was the sarin nerve agent that caused the casualties.

Both Messrs. Tillerson and Lavrov are adamant about their version of the incident. Lavrov has called for an independent investigation to be performed by the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW is an independent, autonomous international organization with a working relationship with the United Nations (UN).

OPCW is the same group that provided the expertise for the UN investigation into the August 21, 2013, chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs. In my opinion, the fact that the report did not assign responsibility for that attack to the Syria regime was a political decision that ignored reality.

I am not sure that OPCW is the agency to be trusted with this investigation. (See my analysis of the 2013 attack and the UN report: Syrian Chemical Weapons Strikes - Random Attacks or Viable Military Targets?, and Syria: United Nations report does not blame the regime for chemical weapons use - really?

It gets better. At about the same time Minister Lavrov was calling for an OPCW investigation in Moscow, the Russian ambassador to the UN vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and requiring Syria to cooperate with an investigation. It is Russia's eighth veto of resolutions on Syria.

American-Russian deconfliction channel
This is a positive result of the Secretary's visit. At the press conference, Minister Lavrov announced that he and Secretary Tillerson had met with President Vladimir Putin and that the President had authorized the resumption of the military-to-military contacts between Russian and American air forces to deconflict air operations over Syria. The Russians withdrew from the arrangement in the wake of the April 7 American missile attack on al-Sha'ayrat air base.

There has been some speculation that the channel never went dormant - shutting down the very system the Americans used to warn the Russians of the impending attack on the air base would be not only ironic but unwise. The channel is a safety-of-flight mechanism designed to maintain safe intervals between combat aircraft of the US-led coalition and the Russian Air Force operating over Syria at the same time.

Regime change and the future of Bashar al-Asad
I believe the Russians have made a subtle concession in their continuing insistence that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad remain in power. Paraphrasing Mr. Lavrov, the Russians are not wedded to any one personality, only insisting that Syria retain its territorial integrity, be a secular state and represent all constituencies. In the Russian context, that means no separate Kurdish area, no Islamic state, and a future for the 'Alawi minority to which the al-Asad family belongs.

Speaking for the United States, Mr. Tillerson stated that he could not see a role for Bashar al-Asad or the al-Asad family in the future of Syria. He did not call for the overthrow of the regime, hoping that conditions could be created for a diplomatic-political solution, probably following the defeat of ISIS.

I believe that the Secretary hinted - I wish he would articulate this clearly - that the current U.S. policy in Syria is the military defeat of ISIS, followed by a negotiated political settlement that removes Bashar al-Asad (and his family) from the political leadership of Syria. I would push for the dissolution of the Ba'ath Party, but that might be too much for Russian concurrence.

My takeaway: the Russians are not wedded to Bashar al-Asad as the leader of Syria, but they are insistent on a regime they can influence (or control). They are concerned that whoever is in charge will honor the recent military base agreement by which the Russians have access to the Tartus naval facility and the Humaymim air base for the long term. The initial agreement is for a 49-year lease.

Cooperation against "terrorism"
Here Minister Lavrov adhered to the party line, but nonetheless, his remarks are important. The Russians continue the farce that they are in Syria at the request of "legitimate Syrian government" to assist in the fight against terrorism.

We all know that the Russians are there to prop up the al-Asad regime. Fighting terrorism depends on the definition of a terrorist group. If the Russians use the Syrian regime definition, anyone who has taken up arms against the regime is a terrorist.

The Russians have been absent in the fight against the major terrorist group in the region - ISIS. To be sure, the Russians have struck ISIS targets on occasion, but only in support of Syrian Army operations. The overwhelming majority of Russian air operations are focused on anti-regime rebels.

Minister Lavrov's assertion that the United States has ignored attacking al-Qa'ida affiliated groups - he used the term Jabhat al-Nusrah - is just wrong. The coalition has struck a variety of non-ISIS terrorist groups in Syria.

Overall, it appears to have been a productive visit. The Syrian chemical warfare incident remains a divisive issue between the two countries. I suspect it will pass in time just like the August 2013 chemical attacks in the Damascus suburbs has.