John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have found a common language, but cannot find a way out of the Syrian impasse.


Photo source: AFP / East News 


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are breaking diplomatic records: over the last four months, they have met no fewer than six times. This intense interplay between the top diplomats, however, has not helped secure a breakthrough on a key issue for both sides – Syria.

Three times, Lavrov and Kerry met on the sidelines of other events – in Brussels, London and Kiruna. Twice they arranged special meetings in Europe, in Berlin and Paris; and once Kerry flew to Moscow especially to meet with Lavrov.

It did not take long for the two men to find common ground, and some observers have noted positively that Lavrov has a rapport with Kerry like the one he shared with Colin Powell. Lavrov, who has served as Russia’s foreign minister since 2004, has had varied relations with other U.S. secretaries of state. He did not have a good relationship with Condoleezza Rice, and although he got along well enough with Hillary Clinton, their talks did occasionally result in the odd conflict.

Kerry, for his part, is known to have a special knack for building relations with colleagues. He also prefers talking face-to-face. Kerry’s first meeting with Lavrov in Berlin took place in the traditional format – the top diplomats sat at a large table with their accompanying two teams of negotiators, advisers and secretaries.

However, during their second meeting, at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in London, the secretary of state took his Russian counterpart for a stroll in the garden. They returned 20 minutes later, both laughing. This more personal style of communication was also used during talks in Moscow, which occurred in front of the fireplace of the Russian Foreign Ministry building, and again in a Paris hotel conference room.

But even this intense dialogue has so far failed to achieve a breakthrough on Syria. In some regard, Kerry has demonstrated flexibility on this sensitive issue – at least verbally.

On May 7, Russia and the United States proposed that a second international conference on Syria, designated "Geneva-2," be convened to discuss the Syrian issue. Moscow had previously offered to organize such a conference, but before Kerry, Washington was reluctant to get on board.

Despite this positive step, the more time passes since the joint statement, the hazier the outlook for the conference becomes. The United States had hoped to open it before the end of May. After this deadline passed, according to diplomatic sources in Moscow, Washington set a second deadline for holding the conference: the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on June 17-18. But again, the timeframe proved unrealistic.

Part of the problem is that scheduling the conference requires answers to two as-yet-unresolved questions: who will represent the opposition at the conference (the Syrian authorities have already consented to take part); and what regional powers will be invited (Russia insists that Iran be offered a seat against the wishes of the West).

Additionally, Moscow has noted several other factors that have worked against setting a date for the conference. In particular, Russia has cited the following events as deliberate steps to thwart the meeting: the submission of resolutions to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council that place the entire blame for the bloodshed in Syria on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the decision by the EU to lift its embargo on arms supplies to rebel forces.

Moscow is ready to lay the blame on third parties, in particular the Persian Gulf monarchies. A Russian diplomatic source who wished to remain anonymous said that Moscow is convinced "the Gulf countries are behind it, and the United States and other Western countries for some reason are pandering to them. The tail appears to be wagging the dog.”

Meanwhile, the West and the Persian Gulf monarchies have their own complaints about Russia’s behavior, particularly its decision to resume the supply of hi-tech weapons to Damascus, including anti-aircraft missile systems, combat fighters and anti-ship missiles.

Russian officials, however, brush aside all inconvenient questions with the response that all the contracts were signed before the start of the conflict and the weapons are intended only to repel external threats.

In the meantime, the civil war in Syria continues. The more people die, the narrower the space for political maneuvering and initiatives, such as the one put forward by Lavrov and Kerry, becomes. The situation is complicated further by the fact that Russia and the United States still do not see eye to eye on matters of foreign policy, the personal rapport between their top diplomats notwithstanding.

Recently, Lavrov complained that together with Qatar and Turkey, the co-authors of the Human Rights Council's tough anti-Assad resolution, "the U.S. delegation is promoting this unwholesome undertaking."

"When in Paris, I drew John Kerry's attention to the matter, and it turned out that he was not aware of the situation and promised to look into it," said Lavrov.

That meeting in Paris took place on May 27. A vote on the resolution was held on May 29. The document, authored by the United States in conjunction with Qatar and Turkey, was approved. Clearly, Kerry was short of time.