The recent talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are a glimmer of hope for a political resolution of the longstanding conflict in Syria.


During their 12-hour negotiations, Lavrov and Kerry managed also to discuss Ukraine and bilateral relations. Photo: / Russia's Foreign Ministry

The Syrian conflict was at the focus of attention at the latest meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The talks did not result in a breakthrough but the continuing Russian-U.S. dialogue gives hope for a political settlement in Syria.

"We have failed to set a new record for the duration of talks," Lavrov joked at the news conference after the meeting with his U.S. counterpart in Geneva on Aug. 26.

The talks lasted 12 hours, an hour short of the session the two ministers had in Moscow in July. For his part, Kerry described the talks as "long and constructive". Both sides called for breaking the impasse in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, while Lavrov said that both, Russia and the U.S., were interested in having normal relations. Yet, the main focus of the talks was on Syria. In addition to the two ministers, the meeting was also attended by UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

Separating opposition from terrorists

According to Lavrov, the U.S. has for the first time presented Russia with a list of groups in the Syrian conflict which could be considered moderate and which have joined the ceasefire. Earlier, Russian officials repeatedly criticized Washington for its inability to separate "moderate opposition" from terrorists.

"The fact that the Americans have presented their lists shows that they too realize the need to separate moderate groups from terrorist ones, which has never been done in this conflict," said pundit Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Russia in Global Politics magazine.

Lukyanov believes that the lists are the first but important step towards separating opposition groups from terrorists, without which there can be no political settlement. The main thing is that the notion of a common enemy is solidifying.

"It is a complex process," said Arabic scholar Leonid Isayev, a senior lecturer in the Political Studies Department at the Higher School of Economics. "Take Jabhat al-Nusra, it is changing its names, adapting, it is closely cooperating with formally moderate groups."

Speaking at the news conference, Lavrov too admitted that it was a difficult task but stressed that it should be addressed promptly and that Russia is trying to assist the U.S. in it. 

Bet on Turkey rather than Kurds?

In their statements, the two diplomats touched upon the Kurdish question too. Lavrov said it was unacceptable to use the Kurds (who seek to establish a state of their own) to break up Syria, while Kerry pointed out that the U.S. had been working with the Kurdish forces "on a very limited basis".

Against the backdrop of the military operation that Turkey launched this week in northern Syria, where Ankara is fighting not only against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which is banned in Russia, but also against Kurdish forces, the two ministers' statements look like support for Turkey, experts note.

Also read: "What the Turkish offensive in Syria means for Russia"

"Clearly, both, Russia and the U.S., after the recent changes in relations with Turkey, are distancing themselves from the Kurds," said Lukyanov. In his view, for the sake of cooperation with Turkey on Syria, the two powers are prepared to limit their contacts with Kurds.

At the same time, neither Moscow nor Washington are severing their relations with the Kurds altogether. Isayev points out that the U.S. is trying to act as an intermediary between its two allies in the region: Kurds and Turkey.

"The Americans are saying what Erdogan would like to hear in order to pacify him. But it does not mean that they are giving up their cooperation with Kurds," Isayev said. Russia has chosen a similar tactic.

Dialogue for dialogue's sake

No documents were signed following the meeting, and no announcement was made about a new round of the comprehensive talks as part of the Geneva process (the latest round of these talks, involving all sides of the Syria conflict, took place in April). Nevertheless, the continuing contacts between Lavrov and Kerry on the Syrian issue are important, experts believe.

"The overall bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. are terrible at the moment," said Lukyanov. The fact that these bad relations notwithstanding, Lavrov and Kerry continue attempts to untangle the Syrian knot is the main good news."

Without Russia and the U.S. maintaining constant contacts on the Syria problem, the situation could have degraded into a direct confrontation in the region between the two nuclear powers, he adds.

The article is first published in Russia Beyond The Headlines.