MOSCOW -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to unearth new commitments from Russian President Vladimir Putin to further a political process for Syria, in particular that he push president Bashar al-Assad to leave office, in the end appeared to yield little immediately on Thursday night.
After 4 hours of discussions at the Kremlin, Kerry emerged close to midnight with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to say that the two sides had agreed on a number of practical steps intended to reinforce the month-old ceasefire that has dramatically reduced violence in Syria, and to solidify a peace process relaunched gingerly this month in Geneva.
Most of the steps largely reiterated pledges already made, although Kerry said that Russia and the U.S. had now agreed to a “target schedule” for achieving “a framework for the political transition," and also a draft new constitution, both proposed for August. The two also agreed to push for a guarantee the sides would not seize new territory or use indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs.
“Over the past few months, we’ve met a fair amount and I think there is something to show for it,” Kerry said, referring to Lavrov. “We have seen how engagement, talking together, having a dialogue and putting together the test each other’s views and ideas can in fact yield positive results, as it has in Syria.”
The ceasefire, which went into effect on Feb. 27, has prompted a dramatic drop in violence across Syria, despite some violations, with a large number of opposition groups agreeing to abide by it. Kerry himself noted that violence may have fallen by 85-90%.
With the ceasefire agreed by Russia and the U.S. now largely holding, State Department officials said it was the moment to see what Moscow was prepared to push forward a political process, being discussed in Geneva and which so far has been thin on specifics for how Syria can move to a new political order after 5 years of devastating conflict.
Speaking before Kerry’s trip, a senior State Department official told reporters that the visit was about “getting down to brass tacks on what that political transition looks like." Chief among these goals, the official said, was clarifying whether Russia is now willing to help Syria “transition away from” President Assad.
After Kerry’s combined total of 8 hours discussion with Lavrov and Putin, there was little indication that the Russians’ support for Assad, who they have propped up militarily, had much waned.
The visit was intended to help sure up momentum for the Geneva talks, which paused for a scheduled hiatus today. Opposition groups have warned the talks could founder on the lack of concrete steps from the Syrian government on how it views a political transition taking place. So far, only basic starting principles for negotiating have been agreed upon but little else.
On Sunday, the opposition umbrella group at the talks, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), complained that the government was refusing to offer any specifics for creating a unity government and warned that if it continued, the opposition would be forced to walk away.
But the question of Assad’s future remains the most dangerous to the talks, with it unclear whether the opposition and the regime will be able to skirt the issue and still come to a deal. HNC representatives this week repeated that Assad can have no role in any transitional government.
But a representative from Syrian opposition groups based in Moscow and backed by the Kremlin told ABC News today that the question of Assad’s removal was only “a third-order question." The representative reiterated the Kremlin's position that Assad’s fate can be left till later.
Speaking with Kerry, Russia’s Lavrov seemed to express this view again. But analysts have noted that Russia’s partial withdrawal of its troops just as the Geneva talks began, seemed to be a signal to the Syrian government to take the negotiations seriously, making it clear Russia would not support it militarily indefinitely.
The complicated Russian attitude is reflected in the withdrawal that prompted Kerry’s visit. The draw-down is far from total-- Russian planes are still flying over 20 sorties a-day against targets in Syria. Even as Putin and Kerry talked Russian aircraft hit targets around the ancient Syrian city, Palmyra, which Assad troops are poised to seize from the Islamic State.
But while U.S. officials have said it is still too early to say whether the Russian withdrawal is real, they have noted the targets of Moscow’s campaign have significantly shifted away from largely hitting moderate rebels opposed to Assad, to striking almost only ISIS and other groups the U.S. considers terrorists, not covered by the ceasefire.
In Moscow on Thursday, Kerry insisted that the shift in Syria, and the downturn in violence prompted by the U.S.-Russia-mediated ceasefire, vindicated his policy of pursuing a continuing dialogue with Moscow, even when it and the U.S.’ views have sharply diverged. U.S. officials described the visit as another example of the Secretary of State’s belief in the effectiveness of relentlessly pursuing potentially thankless interactions with countries often with hostile attitudes to the U.S.. Kerry has met with Lavrov 19 times in 6 months-- a record for U.S. Secretary of States and Russian foreign ministers.