In the past two weeks, two significant political and military meetings were held between American and Russian officials on Syria.
The first meeting was held between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoys in Geneva on September 15 and the second took place between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Helsinki on Wednesday.
Since Biden’s arrival at the White House and preparation for his summit with Putin in Geneva in July, Americans had informed Russian officials that any dialogue over Syria and resumption of the “Vienna secret channel” can only take place after the extension of the United Nations resolution on cross-border aid. This was seen as a test for relations between the new American administration and Moscow.
In July, National Security Council senior director for the Middle East Brett McGurk met with Russian presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev in Geneva, paving the way for an agreement on the draft resolution on cross-border aid. The talks included Washington’s agreement to Russia’s conditions, including funding the “early recovery” in Syria and easing sanctions, in return for Moscow’s vote in favor of the resolution.
On September 16, McGurk, Lavrentiev and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin met in Geneva for the first time since the approval of the resolution.
A diplomatic report, a copy of which was obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, said that assessing the results “differs according to the expectations”. The meeting marked a breakthrough in that Russian-American dialogue was resumed after coming to a halt during the term of former President Donald Trump.
Russia had reportedly criticized the US over several issues, including failing to provide Caesar Act sanctions waivers and failing to ease pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Russian delegation also expressed its irritation with the slow delivery of aid.
It hinted that failure to reach progress would force Moscow to refrain from extending the aid resolution when its six-month period expires in early 2022.
A western diplomat said that this would be reneging on a pledge offered by Vershinin to McGurk during a meeting they held in July.
The American delegation, meanwhile, demanded facilitating the delivery of international aid to all Syrians, moving forward the political process and work of the Constitutional Committee, reaching a nationwide ceasefire and suspending military operations.
The diplomat said the Americans were disappointed with the meeting because they believed that the Russians would “bring something to the table”, but they didn’t. There is a sense that the meeting was a “missed opportunity” to move forward the Syrian file. They also sensed that had the Russians wanted to push the file forward, they would have done so years ago. This explains why the file has dropped low on Washington’s list of priorities.
UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen and other officials were hoping for a Russian-American understanding that would lead to a breakthrough in the conflict.
Some officials said that Putin, during his meeting with Assad earlier this month, had urged him to push forward the peace process and Constitutional Committee in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 and to take advantage of the openness showed by some Arab countries towards Damascus.
A European envoy said on Monday that Damascus’ approval of the Constitutional Committee to start drafting the constitution in Geneva next month took place at Russia’s request. It was also a response to the Arab openness towards Damascus.
As for the second Russian-American meeting, between Milley and Gerasimov, it tackled the broader strategic dialogue between the two sides. They stressed their commitment to avert conflict where their armies operate, such as Syria where the priority is high to fight terrorism and provide stability.
The US renewed its decision to keep forces in northeastern Syria and in the al-Tanf base. The Russians and Americans wanted to stress their commitment to exchanging information in counter-terrorism operations and fighting ISIS, especially with Russian jets striking the Syrian desert near the where American forces are deployed.
The diplomat said a suggestion was made to hold another Russian-American meeting, this time with Israel’s participation, with the aim of exchanging information. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid had paid a visit to Moscow earlier this month and Prime Minister Nafatli Bennett is expected in the Russian capital in days for talks with Putin.