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US, Russia seek breakthrough in Syria

If Tuesday possibly began with an overcast sky over Syria, it certainly would have ended with a ray of sunshine piercing the clouds. 

There was, inevitably, a sense of deja vu when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Tuesday morning about “extremist moods” gaining the upper hand within the Syrian opposition. Lavrov put his finger at where the problem lies — “Of course we cannot solve this problem without Syrians themselves, but in contacts with outside players we feel a growing concern, a growing understanding of a need to influence both the government and the opposition.” 
But then, Lavrov is a gifted diplomat and he also said, “we are not losing heart.” He further added, “We will speak about this with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin today [Tuesday].” 
In the best traditions of Russian-American discourse, what Lavrov did on Tuesday morning as he left for Berlin was to signal the following: A) Russia has brought around the Syrian regime to the negotiating track and Damascus is now willing to talk without pre-conditions even with the armed rebels. 
B) However, there are disquieting signs that the regional powers bent on pursuing the violent path to force a ‘regime change’ also need to be restrained and they should not set the agenda at the ‘Friends of Syria’ [FOS] meet in Rome on Wednesday. 
(C) Equally, this is not the time — especially for Washington — to contemplate fueling the fighting by giving more military muscle to the Syrian opposition, which would only encourage them to scuttle the peace track.and would strengthen extremist elements.   
In the event, Lavrov and Kerry met for an hour and forty five minutes in a “really serious and hard-working session” during which the two diplomats talked about Syria for more than half the time, according to the US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. 
Lavrov succinctly annotated for the media his discussions relating to Syria with Kerry. But forget Syria for a moment.
Lavrov also evaluated the US foreign-policy orientations in general. (By the way, this is Lavrov’s first meeting with Kerry as his US counterpart — although the state secretary is a well-known figure in the Moscow diplomatic circuit.) Lavrov said his talks with Kerry were “quite constructive… It feels like the second administration of Barack Obama will aim to play a more constructive role when it comes to its foreign policy agenda led by John Kerry.” 
Hmm. Certainly, we need to hear many more details. How could Lavrov have failed to touch on the 1000-pound gorilla in the Russian-American tent — US missile defence? 
But, coming back to Syria for the present, isn’t it the case that on the Russian-American diplomatic dance floor, it needs two to tango? This is where, perhaps, French President Francois Hollande’s journey to Moscow later today assumes importance. Now, France is an important player. Remember the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916 on the deathbed of the ‘sick man of Europe’? 
Put differently, there is scope for quid pro quo. The point is, the pot is also boiling in Mali, where, as Itar-Tass commented wryly, “Paris is grateful to Moscow for the manifest “understanding of reasons for French intervention.” 
However, as Kerry would see things, what Russia could do to help realise progress in the difficult negotiations that lie ahead with Iran matters much more. Thus, Moscow gently ticked off Tehran by voicing concern that the latest Iranian move on the eve of the current P5+1 talks at Almaty to instal a new generation of centrifuges at Natanz nuclear facility does not “correspond either to the spirit of the negotiation process, nor the letter of the decisions adopted by the UN Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors.” 
Very little is available about the concrete outcome, if any, of the P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, which extended to Tuesday. When it comes to the US-Iran standoff, reticence in grandstanding always gives room for hope that something constructive must be going on. (LIsten to the Press TV podcast here.) 
To be sure, the situation around Iran becomes an important vector in the US-Russia discourse, which, quite evidently, seems set to gain traction after the Kerry-Lavrov meeting in Berlin.  
All in all, therefore, the peace track on Syria, which Moscow has been struggling to advance, is getting under way. An editorial comment in Khaleej Times gives an insightful summing up of the twists and turns, commending notably that the Syrian regime has taken a “leap forward” in showing willingness to talk with the rebels and this is “genuine leadership in times of adversity.” 
KT is sanguine that the FOS meeting in Rome today “can make a decent beginning by opening parleys with Damascus” and in this respect, Kerry “has a responsibility to deliver.” The editorial is here

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.

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