THE BLOG
09/23/2016 07:48 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2017

Syria And John Kerry's Bombshell: A Moment Of Truth Or A Passing Outburst?

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Finally, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has shown some anger at the UN Security Council. He has questioned the credibility of his dear colleague and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the Syrian question. The moment of truth has come, Kerry said, and the issue is no joke, said the secretary, who has become himself the butt of jokes in some American and non-American circles describing him as a naïve pupil of the shrewd Russian top diplomat. The joke is now on Kerry and his department, which now answers every serious question by promising Kerry would be meeting with Lavrov soon, as though it is this duo that is the determinant of Syria's future in a corridor far removed from the actual daily tragedy. The surprise at the Security Council this week did not come from a vacuum. The Obama administration has run out of patience, as a result of successive Russian provocations and maneuverings, and because of the human cost of the crisis in Syria hitting unbearable levels. So what does it mean that John Kerry has become emotional and Obama has frowned in the face of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in protest at Russian policies and practices in Syria?

The Kremlin will not have great cause for concern. Putin is confident Obama cannot stand up to him in practical terms, as this requires an American-Russian showdown in Syria's skies. The keyword here is "powerlessness" because Russia has constructed its entire Syria policy on the basis that the US under Barack Obama has become "infirm", and that Washington has tied up its own hands in Syria, unable to behave as a superpower not only because it does not want to fight but also because it wants to appease Iran to preserve the nuclear deal, including by bowing down to Iran's will in Syria to hold on to Bashar al-Assad in power. Yet this does not mean that the master of the Kremlin is not worried. Putin must be particularly concerned after US warplanes 'mistakenly' bombed Syrian regime forces and Iranian-backed loyalists. This has forced some humility on Putin but also anger. He does not believe Washington's claims that the strikes were the result of an error, and sees what happened as a message addressed to Moscow as well as Damascus.

Putin understands that his situation is much more fragile than Obama's, because there are no US troops in Syria while Russia today is a direct party to the civil war. Furthermore, the battle for Aleppo is crucial, and the pressures on Putin at home are increasing after he put Russia in the frontline with ISIS and similar groups. This is not to mention the fact that Russia is committing what may amount to war crimes in Syria, as many international non-governmental organizations have said. As a result, Syria is looking increasingly like a quagmire for Russia, while the United States is gearing up - although belatedly - to take some kind of moral high ground relative to Russia on Syria.

This was Syria's week on the sidelines of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, attended by Obama but missed by Putin. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was everywhere, explaining his priorities in Syria, including establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border. He accused the Kurdistan Workers' Party of seeking to partition Syria, and pledged to preserve Syria's political and territorial unity. He said Operation Euphrates Shield has protected Turkey, and that it has turned Jarabulus from a threat to a safe zone. Erdogan called on the Security Council to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its crimes, which include targeting an aid convoy in Aleppo last Monday.

France's president Francois Hollande, for his part, said the Syrian tragedy would remain a stain on the global conscience unless it was immediately put to an end. Hollande proclaimed Aleppo a 'martyr' city, where humanitarian convoys are attacked, the population is starved, and chemical weapons are used. Hollande called on the backers of the regime, led by Russia and Iran, to "force it" to implement peace or bear the consequences of chaos in Syria. He called on holding accountable those who used chemical weapons in Syria, after a UN report confirmed the regime and ISIS used those weapons.

Jean-Marie Areault, France's foreign minister, proposed a three-point initiative that would have the Security Council issue a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to condemn and punish those who used chemical weapons. He said no bargains should be acceptable, such as trading a truce for impunity for those who used chemical weapons.

Areault proposed establishing a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire that would be jointly operated by the stakeholders including France, and not just the US and Russia. Among the proposals of the French minister also is forcing Syrian regime forces to remain in their current positions and grounding Syrian regime warplanes.

John Kerry demanded Russia to stop Syrian regime air sorties in the main areas subject to the ceasefire in northern Syria during a rowdy session of the Security Council, which saw a row between Kerry and Lavrov. The Russian FM protested what he said were preconditions from the American side, to which Kerry responded by saying that refraining from bombing hospitals, civilians, and aid convoys were not preconditions, but were an international agreement being violated repeatedly. Kerry asked how some could sit at the table and talk while the Syrian regime was bombing its own people using chemical weapons.

Russia, according to Lavrov, was still committed to the need to revise the list of terror groups and add new groups. He said Russia needed new guarantees that the United States has influence on the ground and on the groups it says will abide by the agreement.

What about the political process, which seems to be in the backseat of US and Russian concerns? The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the resumption of negotiations, saying the first session should focus on political transition, especially how the transitional governing body would exercise power. He spoke about negotiations that would lead to the formation of a transitional body with full executive powers, adding that his envoy Staffan De Mistura would present a new framework for the negotiations soon. De Mistura said he would present a proposal for a working framework addressing the issue of the exercise of power by the transitional governing body, including presidential powers, participation, and creating transitional bodies to oversee ceasefires and humanitarian aid, as well as creating a favorable climate for peaceful political activity and continued international support for the process.

De Mistura was frank with the Syrian opposition. He said it must understand that any transition will not be about one person, and transferring power from one political side to another. He then addressed the Syrian government, saying it must understand transition means a real transfer of power, and not just bringing in the opposition to the government ruled by one person. Lavrov told De misutra he continues to enjoy Russian support, but advised him not to surrender to "blackmail".

Syria's week at the UN was not favorable for Russian diplomacy, which found itself isolated while the world set its eyes on the terrible violations against aid convoys, and the starvation, dispossession, and bombardment, all part of a deliberate policy pursued by the regime in Damascus backed by Russia, Iran, and allied militias.

There have been mounting media and political pressures this week as Aleppo was present in New York during the UN General Assembly session and as a result of the US military operation in Syria, a new development, be it ill-conceived or otherwise. The outcome of the week is the conclusion that the US-Russian political clash cannot be an indication the conflict is about to end, rather the contrary. Yet the issue depends on what Vladimir Putin has in mind, not what Barack Obama and Francois Hollande say in New York, and also depends on the next steps of Turkey's president.

For his part, Iran's president Hassan Rouhani kept a low profile, unlike with his previous appearances at the UN. Perhaps he decided it was best to hide away from the spotlight, and accusations regarding Iran's actions in Syria. But clearly, he came under no serious pressures from his American or Western counterparts.

The US and Russian diplomacies will no doubt try to address the tension in the bilateral relationship, because the issues in which they are both involved are not limited to Syria. The relationship will be mended, at least on the surface, because the two nations are keen to pursue their necessary partnership especially in Syria.

The danger therefore lies in the terms under which the relationship will be mended. As long as the two countries place their bilateral relationship above all other considerations, Syria will remain collateral damage. The features and limits of the confrontation have been clear from the beginning, and no sane person predicted it would evolve into a military showdown. The translation of this equation is that the containment of differences will lead to papering over the Syrian tragedy, in order not to expose that terrible shortage of principled positions by both sides.

The eventful week in New York was no random event. However, it will not be meaningful unless the US-Russian relationship is seriously shaken, not just through half-hearted speeches that do not hide previous immoral arrangements in Syria.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi