Kerry in Russia to Talk Syria

US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Moscow today to discuss Syria with the Putin government. This follows a large meeting of the Syrian opposition in Saudi Arabia last week that agreed to a set of guiding principles for negotiations over the future of Syria. This is one of those very important meetings at which the negotiators are simply trying to keep the momentum. No breakthrough is expected for some time yet.

The basic issues that Mr. Kerry and his Russian counterparts must address are the future of the Assad regime and the legitimacy of those who are opposing it as potential successors. The opposition forces meeting in Riyadh agreed to several things, but chief among them was the agreement that none of them was prepared to negotiate the future of Syria if the current government got to stay in office once talks begin. Russia and the Syrian government itself tend to believe that such a demand is giving away the store at the beginning. While they have not formally said so, their negotiating position is that there will be no change in the Syrian government even after the negotiations are done.

As for the legitimacy of the various members of the opposition, Russia and Damascus are united in saying some of them are terrorists who have no business at the negotiating table. The Russians and the Assad government want to establish a terrorist blacklist that would effectively remove from the opposition ranks anyone who offends Moscow and Damascus too greatly.

There is some urgency here, as there is a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group (which includes the Arab League, the EU, the UN and 17 countries) in New York on Friday. The agenda there is to figure out how to start talks between the Syrian government and the opposition next month. Whether the meeting will go ahead is currently in doubt. A useful chat between Mr. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov might ensure that Friday’s event goes ahead.

The issue of the Syrian Civil War touches heavily on the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS/ISIL]. Russia believes that the current Syrian government is a huge asset in the fight against ISIS. The US and other western nations (and many Arab Sunni nations) believe that the current Syrian government helps breed ISIS fighters and must go before any real progress can happen against ISIS.

Not having seen the classified intelligence available to the negotiators, this seems like a situation in which the Russians have a significant interest in who runs Syria, and therefore whether Russia has a foothold in the region there. For the west, the future of Syria is secondary to the destruction of ISIS, which President Obama stated has already lost 40% of its territory in recent months. The solution is clear, but it is one that feels a little suspect. The Assad regime must leave office, and its successor must confirm Russia’s position in Syria. This doesn’t take the desires of the Syrian people into consideration, of course, and in the long run, one must wonder if having the Russians in Syria indefinitely really is such a good deal for the west even if it means the destruction of ISIS as a proto-state (it will persist as a terrorism brand for years just as Al Qaeda has done).

The talks with Mr. Lavrov will also extend beyond the question of Syria to include the matter of Ukraine. Mr. Kerry said, “Nothing would please us more than to solve the problem of Ukraine and move forward on the economic front.”

That is a noble ambition, but it is much more likely that the Russians will agree to let the US run Syria for 100 years than it is that the Russians will give an inch on Ukraine. Of course, these talks aren’t about solutions. They are about ensuring that there are talks again next year.