U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have concluded their hastily assembled two-day talks in Geneva over Syria and announced their intention to meet again at the end of this month. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, ponders whether the Syrian crisis can revive the relations between Washington and Moscow.

 

 

In Geneva, both John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov said they hoped to avoid military action against the Syrian regime, which the U.S. accuses of killing hundreds of people in a chemical attack on August 21. At a news conference, Kerry stated that only the threat of force had ensured the sides would come to the negotiating table, but he hoped that diplomacy could replace military action. Moscow announced its proposal to help eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons on September 9, as the U.S. Congress was preparing to debate whether to support President Obama’s call for military strikes.)

The stakes in the crisis are especially high for the United States. The Obama administration is looking to diffuse a showdown without being embarrassed either by losing a vote in the Congress or the UN Security Council. Obama delayed a military strike first to ask for congressional approval and then, after that approval seemed unlikely, to seek an agreement proposed by Vladimir Putin after months of tension and mistrust between Washington and Moscow. U.S. officials say they accepted the Russian proposal as a last-ditch effort to avoid bloodshed.  They justifiably add that they are cautious about the Kremlin’s intentions, and their goal in Geneva was to test the seriousness of Putin’s proposal. In reality, however, the U.S. threat to use force lost credibility as it became clear that lack of popular and international support meant Obama would have to act alone, something he clearly wanted to avoid. Washington’s resolve came into further question by the Administration’s delays and mixed messages with regard the strategy, tactics and timing of a military campaign.

Putin’s unexpected proposal, therefore, appeared to come as a relief to Washington. It was in part a favor from Moscow to help Obama out of the political dead end, into which he had backed his administration. The Kremlin’s favors, however, almost always carry hefty costs, a fact some in the U.S. government appear to understand. While a senior State Department official told The Washington Post that any final settlement must include military consequences if Syria does not comply, comments by other U.S. officials suggest the Obama administration might ultimately accept a UN Security Council Resolution that did not include the threat of force.

Putin’s proposal was in part a favor from Moscow to help Obama out of the political dead end. The Kremlin’s favors, however, almost always carry hefty costs.

In Moscow and abroad, Putin’s initiative was viewed as a triumph for Kremlin diplomacy. The Russian president’s goal is to play for time and push off the talk of military action, because the longer he pushes them off, the less likely they are. In addition to appearing to help President Obama out of a political fix, he has propped up the Assad regime, demoralized the Syrian opposition, ensured continued Syrian demand for Russian conventional weapons, and recast Russia, whose military originally helped the Assad family create its chemical weapons program, as a global peacemaker.

The renewed engagement over Syria may also have revitalized bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow, which the Obama administration had downgraded on the eve of the G-20 meeting due to frustration with the lack of progress over nuclear arms reduction, missile defense, and the Snowden affair. Although Obama had said before the St. Petersburg summit that he would not meet Putin separately, he changed course once he realized that he needed the Kremlin’s help: Putin and Obama did have face-to-face discussions on the margins of the official summit.

Putin, meanwhile, pressed his advantage by placing an op-ed article in The New York Times, which called for U.S. caution regarding Syria. The article contained a mix of falsehood (he argued that Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue in Syria “from the outset,” when in fact Moscow has been the major supplier of Syrian weapons); misinformation (Putin said the Kremlin is seeking to protect international law when in fact it often uses its veto power in the UN to promote its own interests); and hypocrisy (the letter was a direct Kremlin effort to inject itself into U.S. domestic politics, while Putin himself has passionately criticized U.S. involvement in Russian affairs). Finally, Putin lectured the readers that that the U.S. is not an “exceptional” nation, even though a firm conviction of Russia’s unique role in the world underlies much of the Kremlin’s own foreign policy.

While it is unclear if the renewed Syria talks will eventually be successful, they likely have reenergized the faltering U.S.-Russia relationship. Washington should be talking to Moscow on important issues, as the current crisis has shown. But differences with the Kremlin over human rights, strategic stability, and each nation’s place in the world remain profound. The Syria crisis has raised doubts about the administration’s steadfastness in the conduct of its foreign policy. Putin appears to have saved Obama from another military engagement in the Middle East, but the Russian president has his U.S. counterpart over a barrel. The price for continued Kremlin help on Syria is likely to be high.

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