Are the US and Russia bridging their divide over Syria?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry came out of their Berlin meeting sounding optimistic, in contrast to recent discord in the US-Russia relationship.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (r.) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the start of their meeting in Berlin on Tuesday. Afterward, the two described their meeting, which focused largely on the ongoing conflict in Syria, in optimistic terms – a marked change from the strained US-Russian relations of recent months.

After a surprisingly positive first meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Berlin Tuesday, Russian experts say they're hopeful that a real opportunity has opened up to pressure the Bashar al-Assad regime and Syria's fractured rebel movement to come to the bargaining table and discuss a negotiated end to the stalemated civil war that has killed around 70,000 people in the past two years.

After a visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to Moscow on Monday, the Russians insist they have firm assurances that the Syrian government has a negotiating team in place and is ready to sit down with opponents, even armed rebels, to discuss a transitional government. They say the onus is now on the United States and its allies to bring pressure on the main Syrian rebel groups – who will be gathering together at a Friends of Syria meeting in Rome on Thursday – to accept that the only way to stop the bloodshed and end the impasse is to sit down with at least elements of the Assad regime and hammer out a political way forward.

"I think it's clear that Russia can deliver the Assad regime on this point, and bring them to the table for talks with the rebels," says Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center, an independent Moscow-based security think tank.

"Russian diplomacy has been pretty consistent on the need for such talks and Moscow is ready to do its part. But I would think it's the US that has a problem here. If Washington is going to change its approach, and come out in favor of negotiations, it may find itself unable to bring the rebels to the table. The Syrian rebels are very fragmented, have little common ground, and some of them are completely intransigent. Some of them didn't even want to go to Rome, to sit down with their friends, much less engage in talks with the Assad regime," he says.

Both Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry came out of their two-hour Berlin meeting saying optimistic things, which is remarkable in itself given the extremely strained condition of the US-Russia relationship these days. Lavrov told journalists that the two had a meeting of minds about the need to take urgent steps to end Syria's nightmare.

"It’s not that everything depends on us, but we shall do all we can to create conditions for the soonest start of a dialogue between the government and the opposition," Lavrov said.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters that the two spent the bulk of their time discussing Syria "and how we can work together to implement the Geneva agreement." That deal, reached last summer, commits both sides to promoting a political settlement but has so far proved hopelessly vague on whether Mr. Assad needs to step down before the negotiating process can begin.

"The key issue, from the beginning, has been what should come first?" says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal.

"Should Assad's removal be a precondition? Now it seems clear that he will not leave, but he may be prepared to say he will not stay beyond the next election, which should be in 2014. Hence, in order to achieve anything here, the rebels must be prepared to accept some compromise like that. But their big fear would be that Assad might reestablish his position as a negotiator," he says.

Most Russian experts say they have a better feeling about prospects for agreement between Lavrov and Kerry, after a long and sometimes acrimonious relationship between the Russian foreign minister and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"We can expect that the dynamic between Lavrov and Kerry will be better," says Mr. Lukyanov.

"Clinton was a disciplined diplomat and she followed orders, but it was no secret that her views on Russia and the former Soviet Union were different from those of the Obama administration. Kerry seems more moderate, and he's probably a more convenient partner if we're hoping to find ways to bridge differences like those over Syria," he says.

Even if Russia and the US can work together to induce their respective clients to the bargaining table, what would they have to talk about?

"The closest thing we have to a plan is the Geneva text, which calls for a government of national unity to lead Syria through a transition. But it's very ambiguous," says Mr. Baklitsky.

"Russia has often said that it doesn't insist on Assad staying, and it's possible it could agree on some formula in which Assad leaves and members of the regime – perhaps some people who are less tainted by the violence – and moderate members of the opposition would come into government and agree on terms for a way forward. It would be very challenging, to say the least, to find a formula that would satisfy the majority of Assad supporters and the majority of rebel supporters. But that's what we're up against," he says.

But most experts say that even if Lavrov and Kerry have finally seen eye-to-eye about Syria, it's just a momentary note of hopefulness in a long string of failed attempts by the US and Russia to do something about a situation that is already beyond fixing.

"Let's count the miracles that have to happen here," says Georgy Mirsky, senior researcher at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "First, we have to get the opposition to give up their hope of eventual military victory and agree to talk with the regime. Second, Assad has to step down and delegate power to a deputy, whom the rebels would be willing to deal with. And if Assad refuses to go, no miracle of talks is likely to take place at all...."

"And if those two miracles do happen, what's to say that the rebel fighters inside Syria will accept any agreement their supposed leaders in the diaspora have made? After all, these are increasingly hard-line Islamists, who have been fighting hard for two years, and they are not prepared to be sidelined by some deal between the regime and foreign-based opposition leaders," he says.

"What are the chances all these miracles are going to happen? Really, not so much."

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