Russia, US headed for new lows over terrorism, Syria

Despite claims that the Russian foreign minister's visit to Washington was genial and productive, by the time Sergey Lavrov landed back in Moscow, some of the areas of potential cooperation had already grown more snarled.

al-monitor Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hold a joint news conference at the State Department, Washington, US, Dec. 10, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.
Maxim A. Suchkov

Maxim A. Suchkov


Topics covered

mike pompeo, donald trump, vladimir putin, us-russian relations, terrorism, russian influence in syria, russian diplomacy, sergey lavrov

Dec 13, 2019

MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a one-day visit to Washington for a meeting with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. Lavrov was also received by President Donald Trump at the White House and spoke at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank established by Former President Richard Nixon that bills itself as “a voice for strategic realism in US foreign policy.”

In late September, Lavrov led the Russian delegation to the UN General Assembly summit in New York. He last visited Washington in May 2017, when his meeting with Trump in the White House produced allegations that the US president had passed along top-secret information that potentially jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

This time, the parties said they discussed counter-terrorism cooperation, the Normandy summit on the conflict in Ukraine, arms control, de-nuclearization of North Korea, the political crisis in Venezuela and the turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon as well as the situations in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and the Gaza Strip.

Both Pompeo and Trump would later state they warned Moscow via Lavrov over interference in US elections. However, speaking at the press conference before heading back to Moscow, Russia’s top diplomat briefly noted, “We did not discuss elections at all.”

While the issue of electoral interference currently dominates US domestic discourse on Russia, Lavrov came to Washington to see whether progress can be made on issues that Moscow sees are of mutual interest to both nations. In this sense, the fate of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was at the heart of the discussion as well as broader issues of strategic stability and the state of non-proliferation efforts. If arms control is an agenda Moscow and Washington worked on ever since the Cold War, Putin has seen cooperation on counter-terrorism as a pillar of potential US-Russia cooperation since the early days of his long presidency.

“Under the Obama administration the working group [on counter-terrorism] offered a framework for these ties. In the midst of the decisions that were later taken against Russia by the United States, this format was suspended at Washington’s initiative, alongside many other contacts we had. In 2019, at Vladimir Putin’s and Donald Trump’s initiative, we resumed dialogue in the format … This is a very useful mechanism that provides for a comprehensive approach to working together on this urgent matter,” said Lavrov.

Syria naturally emerged as a main agenda item. The top Russian diplomat lauded the United States for the support it provided — “though not immediately,” Lavrov stressed — to Syria's Constitutional Committee, support Moscow interprets as “an indication that the US accepts the realities that exist in Syria.” Yet Lavrov spared no criticism for the US position on the situation east of the Euphrates River.

“The United States, at the head of its coalition, which came uninvited to Syria, is rigorously arranging the life of the local population, supported by Kurdish units and occasionally causing confrontations between the Kurds and Arab tribes when the Kurds come to their traditional lands and wish to stay there. We proposed that the United States resolve the issues of the east coast through promoting Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as stipulated in the UN Security Council resolution Washington supported,” Lavrov stated.

Remarkably, while addressing the two most sensitive issues for Moscow at this stage — Russian actions in Idlib and its allegedly increased presence in Libya — Lavrov argued there was a connection between the two that drives the logic of Russia's actions.

“As for Idlib, I told Mike Pompeo that the city has become a hotbed of terrorism. … Unlike [the Islamic State], which suffered heavy losses and was scattered into disparate groups, Jabhat al-Nusra has seized control of the Idlib de-escalation zone and is attacking the Syrian troops’ positions, civilian infrastructure and Russia’s Khmeimim airbase. We naturally respond to each of these strikes. This situation … should develop toward the end result — a complete liberation of this zone from terrorists and the restoration of the legitimate government’s control over the entire territory of Syria,” Lavrov argued, alluding to Russia’s readiness to help the Syrian army take over the city and its surrounding area by force should Turkey fail to deliver on its commitments under the Sochi deal of September 2018.

He added, “It is also alarming that the terrorists who control this zone are spreading themselves throughout the region. A large group has been spotted in Libya, where they are adding fuel to the clashes that hamper the resumption of political dialogue.”

Lavrov also spoke at length about the situations in Lebanon and Iraq, his main message being for the external powers to resist the temptation to meddle.

“I hope both Lebanon and Iraq will avoid a destructive intervention of external forces, but that all external players will encourage both Lebanese and Iraqis to reach an agreement at the national level. Only in this way can these countries become stable, as well as the region,” he warned.

By the time Lavrov landed back in Moscow, some of the prospects for cooperation he'd identified had already dimmed.

First, Congress received bipartisan and bicameral agreement to add the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, which Trump is expected to sign shortly. The so called “Caesar bill” would impose sanctions on several major sectors of Syria’s state-driven economy and any government or private entity that aids Syria’s military or contributes to the reconstruction of Syria — particularly Russia and Iran, as Assad’s main backers.

Second, The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill asking the State Department to determine if Russia can be qualified as “a state sponsor of terrorism.” The report should be presented “no later than 90 days” after the proposed law comes into force. The Stopping Malign Activities from Russian Terrorism Act would open a way to stricter sanctions and could bring the damaged US-Russia relations to new lows, including potential termination of the bilateral de-confliction channel on Syria.

While the Kremlin has yet to weigh in the potential fallout of the initiatives, the first official reactions suggest they may open a Pandora's box of various reciprocal measures.

“This upside-down world in which American politicians operate came to exist a while ago. The information background both the American establishment and the so-called independent media create is actually shaping an alternative reality in which victims of terrorism are portrayed as terrorists,” Sen. Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Facebook. ”Washington’s open sponsorship of militants in Syria, I believe, should be duly assessed”

“This will be the end of our relationship with the US. This is the real reason to recall the ambassador,” argued Evgeniy Primakov, a member of the State Duma sitting on the Foreign Relations Committee.

“This is just a draft that needs a presidential signature, of course, yet it’s remarkable in itself that it’s penned in the Republican-controlled Senate, the party of the president. … The very approach came to be a trend: [The Americans] see a meeting [with a top Russian official] as having been conducted in a 'positive spirit' and thus should be countered by a harsh measure. They probably assume the Russians will ultimately give up [on the efforts to establish cooperation] and slam the door and thus be self-isolated. But the logic of 'Let’s not play to lose' has its limits. And so does our patience,” Primakov summarized.

“I’d say, don't trouble trouble. When Washington starts laying its own fault at somebody else's door, this gives other countries a good chance to think hard about the real sponsors of terrorism in the world,” Kosachev concluded.

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