In a diplomatic about-face, John Kerry has announced that he will travel to Switzerland on Saturday to discuss Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The announcement comes nine days after Kerry suspended bilateral talks with Russia on the Syria ceasefire.
Reuters has the details:
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Kerry and Lavrov would meet in the Swiss city of Lausanne to consider steps toward settling the conflict. The meeting will include foreign ministers from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran. A senior State Department official confirmed Kerry would attend.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Washington remained committed to a “deep multilateral engagement” to reduce the violence in Syria which would “necessarily” involve Russia too.
“But it is no longer in the context of trying to broker this agreement that would … hold out the prospect of U.S. military cooperation with Russia. That’s something that Russia has lost… the credibility to be able to try to agree to,” he said.
It would seem that Washington is incapable of giving Moscow the silent treatment. Officially, the Swiss trip is a multilateral meeting and does not violate the suspension of bilateral talks. But that technicality disguises the ongoing dialogue. Last Wednesday, a mere two days after the suspension, Kerry was once again on the phone with Lavrov, in what the State Department insisted were informal talks.
What is driving Washington’s rush to talk with Moscow? It is clear at this point that Russia has no intention of abiding by any ceasefire, no matter how favorable. Over the past two weeks, as Russia has intensified its bombing of Aleppo, the U.S. has responded with accusations of war crimes and the Europeans have discussed expanding sanctions, but the West has gained no new leverage over Russia.
The talks may be driven by Russia’s saber-rattling on several other fronts. In the past few weeks, Moscow has withdrawn from a treaty on the disposal of plutonium and deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad. During recent remarks in Washington, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak complained that “normal channels of communication are frozen” and warned that “the risk of miscalculations has increased.”
Kerry may be heading to Switzerland in an attempt to cool down these tensions, calculating that Russia will escalate further if talks are frozen. Yet Washington’s end goal remains unclear, and the shifting explanations from the White House and State Department offer little clarity. Kerry seems to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this time dialogue will finally convince the Russians to change their behavior.