U.S. Signals Concessions to Russia on Syria

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Russian President Putin and Advisers Sit For Bilateral Meeting With Secretary Kerry and Counterparts in Sochi (May 2015)

In the wake of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings in Moscow on Tuesday, the U.S. is sending clear signals that it is willing to make concessions to Russia in order to push forward with a six-month timetable for Syrian peace negotiations, despite deteriorating conditions on the ground and unclear buy-in from the warring parties. During the press conference following Kerry’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday, Kerry said: “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change, as it is known, in Syria.” This statement is only the most recent step in a gradual softening of the U.S. administration’s position on Bashar al-Assad’s rule since August 2011, when President Obama released a statement saying: “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Kerry went on to say that: “while we don’t see eye to eye on every single aspect of Syria, we certainly agreed today – and President Putin agreed – that we see Syria fundamentally very similarly.” With Russia providing direct military support to the Assad regime, even assuming the regime’s strategy of intentionally targeting civilians, the idea that the U.S. and Russia see Syria similarly is not at all clear.

Today, a day after Kerry’s Moscow meetings, the U.S. announced that it is immediately removing its 12 F-15 fighter jets from Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. Six of these aircraft were deployed in response to fellow NATO member Turkey’s request for help in defending itself against Russia. The growing tension caused by a number of airspace incursions by Russia came to a head last month when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that it claims violated its airspace; a claim that Russia denies.

Last week, a rare gathering of Syrian opposition representatives from both political and armed opposition groups convened in Riyadh to create a unified High Commission (1/3 from armed groups and 2/3 from political factions), to designate a 15-member negotiating team for the international talks scheduled to take place in January, and to release a unified statement of principles. At a different point in time this development might have been warmly welcomed by the U.S. government: the U.S. has supported many (if not most) of the involved opposition groups in some form over the past 5 years, the conference was convened by U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia, unifying the Syrian opposition into a cohesive negotiating unit has been a long-desired step, and the final statement produced by the participants both confirmed their support of the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG’s) negotiating framework and their commitment to a democratic and pluralistic system in Syria. Yet, in another sign of the U.S.’s pivot towards Russia – and perhaps desperation to keep Russia involved in the peace talks – Kerry slammed the Riyadh opposition conference results, saying of their final statement that “is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously.”

The next major milestone in the international negotiations process will come on Friday when ISSG members reconvene in New York, and this meeting’s outcomes should shed additional light on whether the U.S. movement towards Russia’s positions is substantive or just rhetorical. One of the topics to be discussed on Friday is which Syrian armed opposition groups will be considered legitimate negotiators and which will be considered terrorists. Thus far, ISIS and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra are the only two groups that all ISSG members have clearly agreed merit a terrorist designation.

John Kerry’s dismissal of the Syrian opposition’s attempts to unify in Riyadh in preparation for international peace talks may be paving the way for the U.S. to make even more concessions to Russia in the days to come by designating Syrian opposition groups not aligned with ISIS or al-Qaeda as terrorist organizations. If this happens there is a high likelihood that that the peace talks will be scuttled before they begin, as such a move is likely to alienate much or all of the armed opposition and make any international ceasefire agreement impossible to enforce on the ground.

We will update this post with any relevant developments in the coming days.