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‘Secret Channel’ between US, Russia in Vienna on Syria: Military Understandings, Political Disappointments

‘Secret Channel’ between US, Russia in Vienna on Syria: Military Understandings, Political Disappointments

Sunday, 7 March, 2021 - 09:30
In this July 16, 2018, file photo, then US President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. (AP)

The United States only gave Russia four- or five-minutes advance warning before it carried out raids against Iranian positions on the Syrian-Iraqi border on February 26. In the past, this interval was longer, extending to hours before Washington struck locations in Syria in April 2017 and 2018.

A new chapter in relations between Washington and Moscow began with the election of Joe Biden as president. He openly declared it during his inauguration: “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.

“I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions (…) are over,” he added.

Biden was referring to meetings over the years between American and Russian officials, starting with former US President Donald Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his successive American counterparts: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo. Meetings between military leaders took place as part of the “Vienna path” where undeclared negotiations were held between the two sides, notably between former Russian official in charge of the Syrian file Sergey Vershinin and ex-US envoy to Syria James Jeffrey in 2019 and 2020.

Asharq Al-Awsat is publishing on Sunday the summary of the rocky official and unofficial negotiations that have been held between the US and Russia in recent years:

Since the term of Barack Obama, the United States was constantly hounded by the “Iraq predicament.” It invaded the country under dubious claims over weapons of mass destruction. It embarked on an adventure in Iraq, inheriting its problems and tragedies and failing to “spread democracy” in the Middle East. Another American misstep took place in Libya.

The errors in Iraq and Libya continue to torment the US as it addresses the conflict in Syria. Added to the equation is the Obama team’s “obsession” with the Iranian nuclear file, failure to address Tehran’s regional expansion and hesitation to use force after the Ghouta massacres in August 2013 and to agree to proposals to set up a safe zone. Obama was then approached by Putin – following the chemical attacks – with a perfect offer and the US and Russia consequently reached an agreement related to the nuclear program in September 2013.

Prior to that, Lavrov, Clinton and others were focused on the Geneva declaration of June 2013. The agreement had called for the formation of a transitional governing body that would exercise full executive powers, but Washington and Moscow eventually disagreed on how to implement it. In May 2013, Lavrov and Kerry agreed to speed up the political process to implement the Geneva declaration and they tasked former envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who had assumed his duties in 2012, to hold the Geneva 1 conference in Montreux in early 2014.

Kerry and Lavrov agreed to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal in September 2013. The implementation of the deal would coincide with Syrian presidential elections in 2014. The agreement was underlined in UN Security Council 2118 and was reached during a critical time of the conflict: ISIS was expanding its influence, the Free Syrian Army was suffering losses and the US was maintaining a regionally-backed secret program to support the armament of the Syrian opposition in Jordan and Turkey. Iran’s support could not save the regime’s losses, which were dealt heavy blows in spring 2015 with the losses of Idlib and the Daraa countryside. At that point, it was only controlling 15 percent of Syrian territories.

In mid-2015, Iran, which had dedicated all of its means to support the regime, turned for help from the Russian army as Putin was awaiting the right moment to pounce on his “prey”. And so it was. Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, extending its reach in the Middle East. Soon after, Russia would become the “sole representative” of the political process, paving the way for the launch of the “Vienna political process”. That process saw the participation of all parties involved in the conflict and led to the drafting of resolution 2254 in late 2015.

Through the resolution, Russia received a number of “concessions” and made several “breakthroughs”: it shifted the political authority from the transitional body to “governance” due in part to the “convoluted wording” of then UN envoy Stefan de Mistura; it expanded the representation of the Syrian opposition to include the Cairo and Moscow platforms, not just the negotiations committee; and it introduced the notion of “combating terrorism”, which formed the basis for the widescale military operations against the “moderate opposition” even though terrorist groups had been identified.

By 2016, beleaguered Syria had been worn down by strikes and displacement. Kerry was still eager to reach “understandings” with Lavrov, reaching a ceasefire deal after marathon negotiations. The agreement included many thorny points, such as delivering aid to besieged eastern Aleppo, forming a joint cell between the American and Russian armies that would oversee the ceasefire, exchange maps and intelligence ahead of launching an assault against the al-Nusra Front and coordinating efforts in the war against ISIS. Significantly absent was a mechanism to oversee the implementation. Consequently, the strikes and battles continued. By the end of 2016 the most prominent agreement was now one struck between Moscow and Ankara that saw the abandonment of eastern Aleppo in exchange for Turkey’s infiltration into northern Syria.

Damascus’ recapture of Aleppo was another turning point in the conflict. Moscow, Ankara and Tehran would then begin to play a more prominent role and this was no more evident than during the launch of the Astana process in early 2017. The guarantors, as they would come to be known, would be in control of “des-escalation” zones in Damascus’ Ghouta, the Homs countryside, Idlib and Daraa and their surrounding regions. This course offered room to maneuver in recapturing vast territories from the opposition that was coming under constant sieges and strikes. Russia was able to conceal this military aspect behind political and humanitarian statements.

Collision avoidance

America’s attention was focused on the region east of the Euphrates River, where it was carrying out international coalition strikes against ISIS, and Syria’s southwest by the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Washington sought “treatments” to both regions. It held declared meetings between its secretary of state and Lavrov or undisclosed ones that were often held in Vienna, and sometimes in New York and Geneva. These meetings formed the basis for the greater understandings that would be reached between them over Syria. Among these agreements was one on collision avoidance, reached in mid-2017.

In July 2017, Trump and Putin would declare a ceasefire between the Syrian government and opposition forces. Prior to the agreement, Trump had halted all CIA financing of the opposition, which was interpreted as an implicit acquiescence to allow Russia to maintain an upper hand in Syria.

In May 2017, American forces struck Iranian factions at the al-Tanf base. In February 2018, they struck Russian Wagner mercenaries in eastern Syria. Military contacts between Washington and Moscow at the time were aimed at averting any escalation in line with the collision avoidance deal. That same channel would be used by the Americans ahead of their strike on February 26.

Moreover, the agreement on southern Syria, reached in mid-2018, was the product of the Vienna path. The deal called for the return of regime forces to the Daraa countryside in return for expelling Iranian militias and resumption of the work of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights.

Then Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk and various Russian officials were part of the Vienna talks.

In 2019, Trump ordered the withdrawal of American forces from the Syrian border with Turkey, giving Ankara the green light to infiltrate Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in October late that year. Many changes were also introduced to the deployment of forces east of the Euphrates. This prompted further military agreements between the concerned parties. The US eventually deployed its Bradley Fighting Vehicles to protect oilfields and avert any Russian provocations. In December 2019, Russian and American military commanders met in Switzerland to prevent any clashes between their forces during operations in Syria.


Changes in the American approach towards Syria were made after Jeffrey and his successor Joel Rayburn took over. These changes included a shift in politics and the anti-ISIS coalition. Both sides resumed the unofficial negotiations in Vienna. This time around, talks tackled political and humanitarian issues based on a “step-by-step” approach or “a lot in exchange for a lot and a few in exchange for a lot”.

During one session between Jeffrey and Vershinin in Vienna in mid-2019, the Americans, for the first time, offered written proposals on freezing sanctions, providing aid to regime regions, financing the mine removal process in Syria and convincing Jordan to provide southern Syria with electricity. In exchange, they demanded the adoption of an international resolution on cross-border humanitarian aid, the activation of the political process and formation of the Constitutional Committee, which indeed happened in October 2019. It also demanded the implementation of the agreement on southern Syria and commitment to the 2013 agreement between Kerry and Lavrov on Syria’s chemical weapons.

This 2019 meeting was a precursor to a meeting between Putin and Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan later that June.

Eventually, both sides would be let down. The Vienna path would end in late 2019 as the economy in Syria took a plunge and violations of the Idlib truce took place in 2020. The Russians appeared eager to resume this path and two meetings were held between Jeffrey and Vershinin in Vienna in July 2020 and Geneva in August 2020. Moscow had pushed for the resumption of the Vienna path after Lavrov’s visit to Washington in late 2019 ended in disappointment after he failed to persuade the Americans to abandon the Caesar Act and end Damascus’ isolation.

During the July talks, it was clear that the Russian delegation was aware of how severe the economic crisis was and it was disappointed that the Caesar Act had taken effect. It was also upset with Washington’s obstruction of its attempts to persuade several Arab and western countries to normalize ties with Damascus.

In August, the Americans were informed of Russia’s rejection of the “step-by-step” approach on Syria. Moscow also believed that the Constitutional Committee would continue to work for years and that it did not need a timeframe to reach its desired results.

The Russians believe that the Syrian presidential elections in mid-2021 are an opportunity for Arab and western countries to recognize Bashar Assad’s legitimacy.

The US has, meanwhile, maintained its agenda by keeping its military presence east of the Euphrates to “deter” Russia and Iran, proposing initiatives to the Kurds to organize their ranks, maintaining the anti-ISISI international coalition and issuing new sanctions, according to the Caesar Act, to increase Damascus’ isolation.

The Vienna path is unlikely to convene again before the Syrian elections. Trump is no longer in office and Syria does not appear to be a priority for Biden. He has yet to name an envoy to the war-torn country, but he has named figures from the Obama administration. McGurk has returned and is playing a central role in reviewing the Syria policy, raising questions as to whether the focus will lie on American interests, such as fighting ISIS, catering to Israel’s concerns and expelling Iran, or whether focus will turn to the political path, implementation of resolution 2254 and addressing the root causes of the crisis.

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