Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Kerry abandons diplomacy’s golden rule – for now

Kerry abandons diplomacy’s golden rule – for now
Published 4 Oct 2016 

A cardinal principle of diplomacy is never to allow frustration over failed negotiations to prevent their eventual resumption.

US Secretary of State John Kerry now appears to have done this overnight following collapse on 19 September of the Aleppo ceasefire he had painstakingly negotiated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The overnight rupture followed a last-ditch attempt to revive negotiations in a phone conversation between the two over the weekend.

This effort may have become caught up with wider Russian-US tensions, including the Russian decision overnight to suspend a nuclear waste disposal agreement with the US.

There is no doubt Kerry is furious with Lavrov. He gave vent to his anger through unusually personal criticism of the Russian foreign minister in the UN Security Council on 21 September, ridiculing Lavrov’s explanations for an apparent Russian attack on a UN aid convoy.

He indicated he saw no point in further negotiations with Lavrov: 'It’s clear we cannot continue on the same path'.

Where Kerry goes from here is unclear.

But the reality is that Russia has the US in a bind over Syria. [fold]

President Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in the civil war had left a vacuum that Russia filled with its intervention in September last year.

Russia, not the US, now sets the rules for negotiations on Syria.

The Catch 22 for the US is that having ruled out the military option, it has no choice but to continue with diplomacy.

To abandon diplomacy would subject the US to withering international criticism for doing nothing over the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo.

A further dimension to this Catch 22 is that Russia’s ruthlessness in prosecuting its air campaign against civilian targets demonstrates it will accept no negotiated outcome except on its terms.

The US could be forgiven for believing that Russia agreed to last month’s ceasefire for the sole purpose of allowing Syrian regime and Iranian ground forces to regroup in preparation for another assault on Aleppo.

Moreover, a key aspect of Moscow’s strategy seems to be for Russian and Syrian aircraft to use munitions of such utter destructive power as to cause terror among the city’s remaining population, compelling them to flee the city.

That Moscow is prepared to accept international condemnation of its actions demonstrates the importance of the current phase of the conflict for Russia and its regime and Iranian allies.

Taking Aleppo is key to the regime’s regaining full control of Syria’s north and west. If Assad can achieve this with Russia’s and Iran’s help, he will again possess the most economically-productive sector of the country and home to 70% of Syrians.

He would then be in a position to win back the more sparsely populated eastern sector more or less at his leisure.

Russia and Assad may also feel under time pressure.

With not much more than three months till Obama steps down, both may have concerns that the new US President may be prepared to take a more active military role in the conflict.

Neither candidates Clinton nor Trump would want another Iraq-style commitment. But they may be prepared to signal a break with Obama’s failed Syria policy by considering proposals for targeted military action.

For example, in their June memo dissenting from current US policy on Syria, 51 State Department officers recommended US strikes on Syrian regime aircraft to show there are costs to the current bombing strategy.

And though the Russian intervention has until now been relatively low cost – with estimates of about 20 Russians killed and an overall bill of less than $500 million – President Putin would be aware that there is no constituency among the Russian people for saving Assad.

He would want to extract the majority of Russian forces before a domestic backlash against the intervention develops.

Regime control of the whole of western Syria would render Assad virtually invulnerable to rebel counter-attack. This could be an opportunity for Russia to declare victory and substantively get out.

Fortunately for Putin, abhorrence in Western countries over his tactics in Syria appears to have little resonance inside Russia – so he’s not under pressure on that score.

Russians were largely unmoved by his and former president Yeltsin’s substantial destruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital, in quelling an uprising there from 1999.

But even if Kerry and Lavrov resume negotiations – State Department officials have said talks may continue in multinational fora – prospects for a genuine cease-fire appear as bleak as ever.

Trust between the two is completely gone. And, to be fair to Russia, Moscow is convinced it has good reason to distrust the US after NATO apparently abused a responsibility-to-protect UN Security Council resolution in 2011 to help Libyan rebels topple Gaddafi.

Russia has made clear that a lasting cease-fire won’t be put in place except on its terms.

These would include continuation of the Assad regime in power and latitude to Russia to attack any anti-Assad military forces it deems to be terrorists.

Both these conditions are contrary to Washington’s stated aims in Syria.

Against this impasse, the only certainty is that the destruction of Aleppo and the killing of its people will continue.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

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