Kerry in Moscow as pressure grows for US-Russia compromise on Syria

If the United States and Russia can overcome their two main sticking points – on 'moderate' rebels and Assad's role in future talks – Syrian diplomacy can move forward, analysts say.

Sergei Karpukhin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. The United States and Russia need to find common ground to end Syria's civil war and restore stability in eastern Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday, as he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to narrow gaps in the countries' approaches to the crises.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian leaders here Tuesday amid broad smiles and firm handshakes – and some hope of breaking a deadlock over how to settle Syria’s nearly five-year-old civil war.

Both sides say momentum is building ahead of the next key meeting of countries with a stake in the devastating conflict, to be held in New York Friday.

Moscow and Washington are stuck on two main points: how to separate "moderate" rebels from the "terrorists," with only the former being granted a place at the projected peace talks; and how to define the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that process and provide assurances that he and his top officials will leave power at some reasonable point. The latter is the single demand that unites the entire Syrian opposition.

Analysts say it is critical for Russia to acknowledge that "moderate" rebels exist if it is to play a credible role as mediator at any upcoming talks. Moscow will also have to bring along its ally, Mr. Assad, who insisted over the weekend he would not sit down with any opponents engaged in armed rebellion.

If the US and Russia can hammer out an understanding, experts say, there is a chance to move forward with plans drawn up in Vienna last month for a cease-fire, talks between Assad’s regime and at least some of his armed opponents, and then constitutional reforms and fresh elections.

That’s a pretty tall order, but analysts say the US and Russia may be inching toward compromise.

"Something has to give," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. “Both sides are reluctant to back down, and each has a lot of pressure on him not to. But the meetings are happening in great numbers, and expectations are growing.”

Russia trying to change the narrative

This is Mr. Kerry's 20th meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, so far this year, and his second face-to-face with President Vladimir Putin. President Barack Obama has met with Mr. Putin three times since September alone.

Since Russia began its campaign of airstrikes in Syria more than two months ago, it has gradually expanded the scope of its attacks, including cruise missile salvos and raids against Syrian rebels with giant Russia-based strategic bombers. Military officials in Moscow have denied persistent rumors that they intend to introduce ground forces, or open a second major airbase in the country.

But Moscow has been roundly criticized in the West for bombing “moderate” rebels who might be suitable partners for peace talks. In an apparent effort to change that narrative, Russia’s defense ministry claimed Monday that it is providing air support to elements of the US-backed Free Syrian Army in their battle against the self-declared Islamic State and Al Qaeda-linked forces. If true, that would represent a key shift, say experts.

“There have been contacts between the Free Syrian Army and Russia, but I haven't heard of them moving forward,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. “But the FSA is not really a single, united army. It's a lot of different groups, and Russia may be trying to engage with some of them.”

Limiting Assad's future

There are some indications the FSA is deeply fragmented and exhausted, and that some factions might be induced to negotiate with the Assad regime. But Mr. Golts says he doubts Russia has sufficient intelligence resources on the ground in Syria to differentiate between factions and identify those that might be influenced.

“This kind of covert operations are very delicate and complex. I just don't think we have the human resources down there to pull it off,” he says. “I suspect this is mostly just talk.”

Analysts say neither Russia nor the US will succeed in bringing any major rebel forces to the bargaining table unless there is clear agreement that Assad must leave, or at least not be a candidate in projected new elections.

Russian officials have insisted that they are not “wedded” to Assad, but they have never spelled out conditions under which he would go.

“There is not a single substantively new statement out of Moscow to suggest compromise on Assad,” says Mr. Strokan. “And why should Assad agree to go? The Russian intervention has bolstered his regime, and removed the specter of imminent defeat. It's very positive that Russia and the US seem to be sincerely wrestling with this, at last, but it's still an almost impossible conundrum.”

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