US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and the Russian president’s special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev are scheduled to hold official talks on Syria in Geneva next week.
They are hoping to pave the way to avoiding a diplomatic clash as the deadline looms to extend the United Nations Security Council resolution on humanitarian cross-border aid deliveries to the war-torn country. The deadline is early next year.
The meeting will also be held as the military situation in northeastern Syria grows even more complicated with the deployment of American, Russian and Turkish troops and the regime, as well as Kurdish forces and factions allied to each of Ankara and Tehran.
Moreover, Washington is hoping to coordinate stances with its allies through hosting an expanded meeting for major and regional powers on the sidelines of next month’s conference for the international coalition fighting ISIS. The conference will be held in Brussels. A similar one was held in Rome in June.
Moscow is also organizing a conference for the “Astana guarantors” that will bring together the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey. They are set to meet next month to coordinate their positions in Syria.
Soon after President Joe Biden was elected his political team sought Russia’s approval for the extension of the aid resolution. Washington offered several concessions to Moscow so that the resolution would be passed. After several amendments, including Russia’s addition of funding of the “early recovery” in Syria to the draft, the resolution was passed.
In return, Washington received verbal pledges from Moscow over moving forward the peace process and the work of the Constitutional Committee, consolidating the ceasefire and maintaining the borders of the three zones of influence in Syria.
The McGurk-Vershinin channel of communication now has political and humanitarian dimensions.
Recent weeks, have seen Russia expand its deployment in regions east of the Euphrates River near where American forces are present.
Russia has dispatched fighter jets to Qamishli and Raqqa and expanded its patrols with the aim of “deterring” Turkey from carrying out a new incursion against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are allied with the US.
McGurk is not opposed to these Russian moves, but he is aware that Moscow’s expanded deployment will increase pressure on American forces to withdraw from Syria, significantly in wake of the pullout from Afghanistan.
Washington, meanwhile, is encouraging the SDF and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), to hold dialogue with Damascus. Moscow is also asking that Damascus show some political flexibility with the Kurds. Prominent Kurdish official Ilham Ahmad was notably recently in Washington and Moscow, while Lavrentiev was in Damascus.
The upcoming dialogue between Russia and the US may act as a test to determine whether political dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus may kick off.
As the deadline for extending the UN resolution approaches, Moscow is unlikely to oppose its renewal since the aid is also going to regime-held areas. The McGurk-Vershinin meeting will likely be an opportunity for new negotiations over a new deal that would see the Americans offer guarantees to implement the articles related to the “early recovery” stipulated by Russia. In return, Moscow would agree to extending the resolution.