Kerry and Lavrov: Personal rapport versus facts on ground in Syria

The New York Times reports on May 18 on the rapport that is building between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

See Steven Lee Meyers and David M. Herszenhorn, “U.S.-Russian Diplomacy, With a Personal Touch”,” New York Times, May 17, 2013.

Yet the U.S. decision to join the Russians in organizing a Syrian peace conference, aside from having a snowball’s chance in hell of leading to peace, has undercut efforts that might have resulted in sending arms to the Syrian rebels any time soon.

Once again, the United States has acted to undercut its allies, who (with France and Britain in the lead) among other things were pushing for an end to the European Union arms embargo on Syria. Once again, the U.S. has acted to put off the day of reckoning when Barack Obama might actually have to decide to openly supply arms to the armed opposition in Syria.

See “The emperor has no clothes”: Foreign policy without a moral core—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #19, The Trenchant Observer, March 29, 2012.

Once again, the United States has decided “to act through the Russians” in search of a solution to the crisis in Syria. When this strategy was adopted a year ago, it allowed the U.S. to continue its “pressure” on al-Assad with only words, not military actions, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives in Syria. The acknowledged (minimum) death toll now stands at 80,000.

However, David Kramer, the President of Freedom House and a former high State Department official, has forcefully reminded us of who Putin is, and the fallacious nature of the illusions that might lead us to believe that Russia could be helpful in Syria.

See David J. Kramer, “No help on Syria will come from Russia, Washington Post, May 17, 2013 (10:48 PM EDT).

Once again, we are reminded of Obama’s strong belief in personal relations, his belief in his own personal charm, and how he pursued his “reset” of relations with Russia under the illusion that his “warm” relations with President Dimitri Medvedev would affect events, with disastrous results. In Syria, he simply ignored what was happening on the ground and the actual policies the Russians were pursuing.

A famous journal during the Soviet era, particularly in the glasnost period, was entitled, “Argumenty i Fakty” (Russian: “Аргументы и факты”). Arguments and Facts. President Obama and John Kerry need to attend not only to their own and Moscow’s arguments with respect to Syria, but also–and primarily–to the facts regarding what the Russians are doing on the ground in Syria, and what the United States and its allies should be doing to counter or prevent these actions.

This week we know that Russia has deployed a number of warships to the Syrian port of Tartus, is delivering or is about to deliver land-to-sea missile and radar systems to Syria, and appears to be about to deliver a new advanced air-defense system and missiles to Syria. Russia is financing the Syrian state. Iran is supplying weapons, training and personnel to Syria. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has militia members inside Syria fighting alongside al-Assad’s forces.

See Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Gregory L. White, “Russia Raises Stakes in Syria; Assad Ally Bolsters Warships in Region; U.S. Sees Warning,” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2013 (updated 11:07 p.m. ET).

At the same time, Kerry and Obama, in addition to derailing French- and British-led efforts to lift the EU arms embargo against Syria and to postponing–indefinitely–any U.S. decision to openly provide arms to the insurgents (despite the crossing of the chemical weapons “red line”), have not responded to Lavrov’s ludicrous argument (not new) that Russia in only fulfilling the terms of old arms contracts, which are prohibited neither by international nor domestic law. Even at this level of detail, neither Kerry nor Obama has rebutted this argument, or even demanded that the texts of such contracts be made public.

Only since Obama took office has the U.S. been deterred from acting by the contractual terms of agreements such as those alleged to exist between Russia and Syria, a state led by one of the great war criminals of this or the last century. In fact, International Law has much to say about war crimes and crimes against humanity, and about complicity in the commission of such crimes.

At the end of the day, there should be no confusion over the fact that the decision-maker in Russia is Vladimir Putin, who is not going to be moved by good relations with Obama (actually their relations are abominable), or by warm, friendly relations between Lavrov and Kerry. Lavrov is a very effective diplomat in the service of the Russian state, who takes his orders from Putin. It doesn’t hurt that he has cordial relations with Kerry, and it is good that the U.S. and Russia are talking to each other directly (rather than through a UN mediator like Kofi Annan or Lakhdar Brahimi), but there should be no illusions about whether or not rapport between Kerry and Lavrov will affect Putin’s calculus and behavior.

In this context, it is extremely important to understand who Putin is, and what he has done in the past.

See, e.g.,

André Glucksmann, “The killing continues in Syria” (English translation)—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #81 (August 28), The Trenchant Observer, August 28, 2012.

André Glucksmann, “La tuerie continue en Syrie”—Obama’s debacle in Syria — Update #74 (August 13), The Trenchant Observer, August 13, 2012.

“What future for UNSMIS and for Kofi Annan? Russia pushes for more of the same, with an implied military threat to dissuade all from any other options—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #61 (July 11),” The Trenchant Observer, July 11th, 2012.

Surely the United States can come up with a better policy regarding Syria than “trust the Russians” and “play the Russians’ diplomatic game”.

The Trenchant Observer

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.