Secretary of State John Kerry has gotten off to a fast start as America’s chief diplomat, already racking up a half a dozen sessions with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Kerry says they have developed an extraordinary rapport, including bantering over ice hockey and other professional sports. So far, so good. But there’s a problem with this budding relationship. Whereas Lavrov is a wily, experienced diplomat looking out for Russia alone, Kerry is new to the job and so anxious for a diplomatic achievement that he seems too willing to weaken U.S. policy with respect to the brutal war in Syria.
For some two years, the United States has insisted that Syrian President Bashar Assad has lost his legitimacy and must leave power. With at least 80,000 dead and many millions more displaced or refugees, according to the United Nations, Syria is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the modern era. And as the Syrian leader has upped the military ante—first with crackdowns on demonstrations, then armed assaults, mortar and artillery barrages, air strikes, medium-range missiles, and, recently, the probable use of chemical weapons—Russia has remained intransigent in its support for Assad. As a result, the U.S., Britain, France, and other European and Middle Eastern countries have been unable to get the U.N. Security Council to impose draconian sanctions on Syria, let alone threaten the use of force, to convince Assad to leave. At one point, the Russian representative’s support for Syria was so callous that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice famously called Russia’s policy “disgusting” and “immoral.”
Worse yet, the crisis has jeopardized the stability of the entire region. Jordan, which has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian families, can no longer cope and, some say, is on the verge of collapse. The war has already led to battles along the border with Turkey and Israel. And, as the years have gone by, the growing sectarian nature of the fight, Sunnis versus Shiites, has made Syria a microcosm of the larger regional struggle between a growing Shiite axis, which includes Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Sunni powers in the Gulf states and Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. This past weekend saw signs that Lebanon, which previously had the honor of serving as the battleground for regional instability during its long civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, is at grave risk of unraveling, too.
The latest developments on the ground in Syria are even more troubling. Hezbollah has now entered the fight in earnest, sending thousands of soldiers to serve as ground assault units for Assad’s demoralized armed forces. Iran has stepped up its efforts to support, arm, and train Assad’s forces as well.
Which brings us to Kerry and Lavrov. Although the relationship between an American secretary of state and a Russian foreign minister is not nearly as significant today as it was at the height of the Cold War, it still affects perceptions of how the major powers are managing the world’s problems and can even determine how an international crisis is resolved. Inasmuch as President Vladimir Putin’s Russia no longer seeks greater integration with the West, it is crisis diplomacy where Moscow and Washington do much of their business these days. If they can find common ground, then the universal legitimacy of the U.N. can be brought to bear in resolving a crisis or ending a war.
When Kerry began his wooing of Lavrov, he quickly discovered, as his predecessor Hillary Clinton did, that Russia has no intention of abandoning its long-standing relationship with the Assad family or letting the U.S. or its European allies change the military balance in Syria in favor of the opposition. At the beginning, Kerry claimed his goal was to change Assad’s “calculation”—and his aides indicated he would push for increased supplies and even military equipment for the Syrian opposition. But with Russia blocking the way, and Washington reluctant to step up its involvement in the war, he was quickly back to square one. That’s when he went off course.
Presumably with White House agreement, Kerry walked away from America’s view that negotiations should be based on the premise that Assad would leave power. The Russians had long favored a negotiation. So, when Kerry announced earlier this month that Moscow and Washington were going to push for a peace conference, it was hardly a breakthrough with Russia. Indeed, French and British officials were fuming, not only because of Kerry’s failure to consult about the specifics of a conference but because they quickly realized that the U.S. reversal meant all the pressure would be on the opposition, not the Syrian government. Lavrov was no doubt satisfied.
In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time with Lavrov when he was Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations and I worked for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He is the smartest Russian diplomat I have ever met and may be the cleverest diplomat operating at high levels in the world today. Back then, the main crises were in the Balkans and Iraq. In both cases, President Bill Clinton was relying on a strategy of diplomacy backed by force. Russia, then led by President Boris Yeltsin, opposed the use of force in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. But—and this is the big difference between then and now—Moscow’s goal was to minimize differences with the U.S. If we were determined to act militarily, it would stay out of the way while still upholding Russia’s interests to the maximum extent possible. This is what Lavrov did so brilliantly on issue after issue at the U.N.
Putin’s strategy, by contrast, is to thwart the U.S. Since Putin’s ascendance and the demotion of Dmitry Medvedev, who was president when Russia abstained on the resolution to use force in Libya, U.S.-Russian relations have been in a downward spiral. Consider how the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, has been ridiculed by the Kremlin and the Putin-controlled media. Putin himself has made a series of pungent anti-American comments, and, according to U.S. officials, he is apparently determined to undermine U.S. policy in Syria and elsewhere. Clearly, the spirit of cooperation created by the so-called reset in U.S.-Russian relations at the beginning of the Obama administration is long gone.
Much has been made of Putin making Kerry wait three hours to meet him in the Kremlin. But that wouldn’t matter so much if the results were different. Yeltsin was late for meetings, too. But, at his core, Yeltsin believed that if he and President Clinton worked together, problems could be solved. Yeltsin also believed that working with the U.S. and Europe was the best way to modernize Russia and integrate it into the West. Putin does not.
Indeed, Russia has now joined Hezbollah and Iran in stepping up its military transfers and support for Assad. There are the sophisticated anti-ship missiles that have just been sent to Syria, the naval deployments to the Mediterranean, and the sophisticated air defense system, the S-300, soon to be delivered that Kerry sought to stop. Not only was the Russian answer no, but Lavrov now has the gall to suggest that Russia’s arms shipments are stabilizing while any effort to help the opposition forces is pouring fuel on the Syrian fire. During the Medvedev era, Russia agreed to forego the shipment of that exact system to Iran. And under Yeltsin, the U.S. was able to persuade Russia to delay or cancel many arms sales to Iran, Syria, and other countries. Putin’s intransigence is part of a pattern. It should be a signal to Kerry that Russia is content to see Assad win the war, and that Moscow doesn't spend much time agonizing over the mass slaughter of Syrian civilians. There are no Russian human rights groups putting political pressure on the Kremlin to do something about the atrocities occurring in Syria.
Compare that with Kosovo in the late 1990s. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rallied America’s European allies to our side and developed a clear strategy of offering Slobodan Milosevic a choice between a peace agreement or NATO attacks, Moscow also opposed us. That’s why there was never a U.N. resolution on Kosovo. But Albright did work closely with her counterpart, Igor Ivanov, so that Russia could play a large role in the diplomacy anyway. Indeed, it was a U.S.-European-Russian troika that negotiated the terms of the proposed peace agreement with the Serbian government and the Kosovar Albanians. And when Milosevic capitulated after 78 days of air attacks, Russia and the U.S. worked together to craft a U.N. resolution to end the war and authorize the deployment of peacekeeping forces.
All that was possible for two reasons. First, Albright consulted with Ivanov extensively in advance about U.S. plans to use force if the peace agreement was rejected by the Belgrade government. And second, Ivanov and Yeltsin understood that the slaughter in Kosovo had to be stopped. Ivanov even acknowledged that without the threat of force Milosevic would never negotiate seriously.
Assad, like Milosevic, will only negotiate seriously if the military balance is against him. And that is what is particularly troubling about the Geneva conference that Kerry is pushing. Right now, the opposition forces are under assault. Iran has stepped up its military support. So has Russia. And Hezbollah is now a full-fledged ally in this axis of slaughter in Syria. The bad guys are getting stronger. Until Washington, with the support of Europeans and the many others around the world who also oppose Assad, act to strengthen the opposition’s military capability while isolating the Islamic extremists who have joined the fight, a peace conference is a prescription for disaster. Either the opposition will appear as the recalcitrant party or they will be pressured into important concessions that will never be accepted by those fighting and dying on the ground in Qusayr, Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus.
Kerry is making a big mistake if he doesn’t understand that Russia wants, as a matter of policy, to weaken the United States. He should be much more wary of negotiations with Lavrov until Assad’s calculations change, and that will only happen when the Syrian opposition recovers from recent setbacks. There will be a time for negotiations to succeed, but that time is not now.
James P. Rubin is a contributing editor at The New Republic.