The United States Secretary of State John Kerry is heading for Moscow for talks with the Russian leadership regarding Syria and Ukraine. Washington has projected that the talks would relate to the transition in Syria.

Assad during his meeting with Vladmir Putin in Moscow Tuesday
Russia wants US-led coalition to focus on the fight against terrorists and not harp on removing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from power

A senior White House official Celeste Wallander, senior director for Russia and Central Asia on the National Security Council, was quoted on Friday as voicing cautious optimism that an agreement is possible between Washington and Moscow on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad leaving power as part of the transition.

As Wallander put it, “it’s clear that there could be an agreement on a transition that meets US and coalition requirements that Assad not be part of Syria’s leadership, and those are the discussions that are under intensive focus right now”.

The basis of Wallander’s optimism remains unclear. The last authoritative articulation of the Russian position on the issue was made at the level of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an interview with the Italian media last Wednesday where he spoke on the ‘Assad question’. Lavrov saw, on the contrary, that if there was indeed “a minor change” over Assad, it was in the position of the US-led coalition:

“They (US and its allies) no longer insist that he leave immediately, but have agreed that he can participate in the political transition. Yet they want to see a deadline in terms of how long he can implement his presidential powers… we consider this approach unviable and contrary to international law and the principles of democracy. We (Russia) must act on the basis of documents that recognize Syrians’ right to decide the future of their country… If some members of the US-led coalition have a personal dislike for President al-Assad, they should make these personal reasons subordinate to the priority reason – to fight the terrorists… I’d like to say that a coalition can be created if our partners don’t link this task of global importance to their striving for unilateral geopolitical gains.”

The key phrase here is: “unilateral geopolitical gains”. In the Russian assessment, geopolitical considerations outweigh the US’ compulsion to cooperate with Moscow in the fight against the Islamic State. Lavrov was pretty much blunt: “We have noticed that the US-led coalition stepped up its fight against IS only after Russia dispatched a combat air group…to Syria. The coalition efforts undertaken in Syria earlier could be described as odd, to say the least… This brings to mind NATO’s operations in Afghanistan… We don’t want the fight…to be feigned.”

Even assuming that Moscow is bending on the Assad question, what about Iran? It was only a week ago that one of the most influential figures in Iran’s foreign policy establishment, Ali Akbar Velayati (advisor on foreign affairs to Iran’s Supreme Leader and a former foreign minister) stated in Tehran on the state television on return from a high-profile visit to Damascus and Beirut (where he had meetings with Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah) that no foreign country is entitled to prescribe the terms of a Syrian transition.

Velayati made an extraordinary statement that “Bashar Assad is Iran’s red line” and that Tehran will not desert Assad either on the battlefield or in politics. No Iranian leader has ever voiced Tehran’s support for Assad in such forceful, uncompromising terms. Without doubt, Velayati was expressing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s stance. (Velayati undertook the visit to Damascus and Beirut as Khamenei’s special envoy and was accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian who is Teheran’s key point person on Syria and Arab affairs.)

Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that Moscow and Tehran have stopped consulting each other closely and coordinating their diplomatic moves on Syria. Admittedly, the western hypothesis that the Russian-Iranian cooperation is merely tactical and lacks strategic congruence keeps popping up now and then, but that is only to be expected as part of the ‘propaganda war’. In sum, the Obama administration cannot be in any serious doubt that the stance regarding the ‘Assad question’ taken by Moscow and Tehran alike is fundamental and unlikely to change.

The Kremlin is yet to confirm that President Vladimir Putin will receive Kerry. The foreign ministry has let it be known that Kerry’s working visit is at his “desire” and that Lavrov plans to “exchange views” with him on “issues of bilateral cooperation and topical international problems”. The foreign ministry’s curtain-raiser on Friday for Kerry’s visit underscored that Russian-American relations remain tense:

“A series of confrontational steps taken by Washington under the pretext of the Ukrainian crisis has strongly impacted cooperation between our countries… Offering reciprocal response to such actions, including to dangerous steps in the military sphere, Russia has been consistently stressing the necessity to observe the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in domestic affairs… Meanwhile, we continue joint work with Washington in those areas where such cooperation is in Russia’s interests and meets the tasks of maintaining international security.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s standoff with Turkey is still a developing story. The ambivalence in the US stance on the Turkish move to set up a military base in Mosul (which is outside the traditional Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq) is glaring. Ankara now claims that the military base can be as a common facility for the US-led coalition. Russia, on the other hand, has backed Iraq’s demarche with the UN Security Council regarding the Turkish incursion.

Again, in a highly-publicized remark on Friday, while addressing the collegium of Russia’s defence ministry, Putin warned against “those who will again try to organize any provocations against our servicemen.” He said, “I order to act very tough. Any targets that threaten Russian forces or our infrastructure on the ground should be immediately destroyed.”

Quite obviously, Putin would have spoken on the basis of some intelligence reports.

At any rate, on Sunday, a Turkish ship provocatively approached a Russian guard ship which was anchored in the eastern Mediterranean off Greece’s Lemnos Island, refusing radio contacts and ignoring the customary signal flares, and turned back only when small arms were used. The Russian defence ministry has lodged a strong protest warning Ankara against “reckless actions against the Russian military contingent on an anti-terrorist mission in Syria”.

Evidently, Turkey is at it again – poking the bear. And Moscow would have most probably factored in by now that Turkey is not acting alone, but could be drawing encouragement from the US. Not the best of backdrops, of course, for Kerry’s working visit to Moscow on Tuesday.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing)

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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