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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
December 14, 2015

Publication: Putin in Syria
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
What Would It Take For John Kerry's Meeting With Putin To Bear Fruit In Syria?

As we reported earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria, but there remains a question as to whether or not he can successfully find any common ground with the Russian leader.

Frederic Hof, the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012, has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to write an editorial calling Kerry's mission another example of the Obama administration's "wishful thinking" that they can come to a diplomatic solution that Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime will accept:

As Kerry, the secretary of state, recently told France 2, “We have Iran and Russia at the table for the first time. If we can get the political track moving in the next weeks — not months, in the next weeks — if we can bring the opposition together with Assad’s negotiating team, then we can have a cease-fire. We believe we are weeks away from the possibility of a cease-fire. And then we have the ability, if we can effectively put the transition of the government in place, to mobilize the government forces together with the opposition to all go after [the Islamic State]. That’s the most effective way to go after them.”

Lots of “ifs.” But does he really think he can convince Iran’s supreme leader that responsive government in Syria and a united front against the Islamic State are more important than a reliable client able and willing to do anything he is asked to support Iran’s Lebanese militia Hezbollah? Can he convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that legitimate governance in Syria and beating the Islamic State trump the prospect of humiliating the United States by preserving Assad? More power to him if he can. But how he will do it with no apparent leverage beyond a smile and a shoeshine is a mystery.

Assad and his family have no intention of yielding. All of Kerry’s “ifs” hinge on Assad doing things he continues to reject categorically and contemptuously. Washington will not force his hand. Kerry is relying on Iran and Russia to implement the truth as Washington sees it.

The problem, Hof writes, is not that Kerry and the Obama administration are making an attempt, through the Vienna process, to find a diplomatic solution. The problem is that there does not appear to be any strategy on how to end the conflict if Vienna fails. Furthermore, it appears that the lack of desire for other options within the White House means that there is no incentive for Assad, Russia, or Iran to take the Vienna process seriously.

Obama and Kerry's wishful thinking on Syria

Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, served as a special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012. President Obama recently told reporters in Manila that he cannot "foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power."

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Dec 15, 2015 00:58 (GMT)

Hof is not just an outside critic of the sitting president. He was picked by the Obama administration to help find a solution to the crisis, and he has been consistently critical of the administration's approach to the Syrian crisis since he left the State Department.

There are plenty of other critics of Obama's approach to Syria that have emerged from the State Department. According to a new article in The New Yorker, Vali Nasr, a former advisor to Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton, has underscored how hesitant Obama is when it comes to involvement in Syria. “Obama hasn’t changed his position from 2011. He is always concerned that it’s a fool’s errand, a slippery slope to another Iraq, pouring blood and treasure into another conflict.” The New Yorker continues:

Kerry’s senior aides are not hesitant to say that both as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Secretary of State he has disagreed strongly with Obama on Syria. “Obama prioritizes avoiding any entanglements where it is uncertain that such an intervention will work,” a State Department official told me. Kerry, who sees that the crisis has threatened the stability of Jordan, Lebanon, and other states in the region and has provided ISIS with a base, in Raqqa and Ramadi, has, the official said, “much more faith in our ability to avoid a slippery slope.”

From the beginning of the civilian uprisings in Syria, in 2011, and the regime’s escalating and bloody reaction, many of Obama’s advisers have argued for a more aggressive policy: arming and funding the “moderate rebels”; air strikes on Damascus; taking out Assad’s helicopters and planes, which drop barrel bombs packed with shrapnel, explosives, and, sometimes, chlorine; the establishment of safe zones and a no-fly zone. In 2012, the C.I.A. director, David Petraeus; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Samantha Power, who was then a national-security adviser; and Secretary of State Clinton pressed Obama to support vetted rebels against the regime. Kerry—who was influenced by the relatively successful, if belated, interventions in the Balkans, in the nineties, and also by the calamitous decision not to intervene in Rwanda in 1994—joined this chorus when he replaced Clinton. But no one could convince Obama that deeper involvement would avoid a repetition of the Iraq fiasco.

Kerry was a critical actor in the most humbling episode of the Syrian drama. Obama had warned Assad that he would be crossing a “red line” if he used chemical weapons, saying that such an act would “change my calculus.” In August, 2013, a year after the “red line” warning, Assad’s forces, according to Western intelligence services and an independent U.N. commission, fired rockets armed with sarin on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds. The U.S. prepared to attack with cruise missiles. In a speech insisting that Assad give up all his chemical arms, Kerry referred to the “lessons” of the Holocaust and of Rwanda. General Dempsey said, “Our finger was on the trigger.” Obama warned of an American attack, although Kerry, following the President’s minimizing lead, allowed that the strike would be “unbelievably small.” Then, without consulting Kerry, Obama stepped back, saying that he would have to get congressional approval before an attack on Syria. He had concluded that it was worse to go to war than to be seen as weak.

John Kerry's Middle East Mission

David Remnick on Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiation efforts with Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and Bashar al-Assad.

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Dec 15, 2015 01:13 (GMT)

This depiction of Obama as so unwilling to go to war that he'll avoid taking any action is not unique, nor is it particularly unfair. In a must-read 2013 piece in Politico, Glenn Thrush illustrated how unwilling Obama was to even entertain suggestions for intervening on any level to end the Syria crisis, despite the advice of multiple groups of advisors from 2011 onward, including John Kerry who advocated bombing the Assad regime in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack and was apparently unaware that Obama was going to ask Congress for permission to launch such strikes (the Republican-controlled Congress never granted that permission).

In late October, press reports emerged that John Kerry was revisiting the idea of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, despite the fact that Obama had already dismissed the idea. Now, more statements from the White House and top military officials indicate that this option is off the table:

Russia and Iran have not been willing to change course so far, and Russia in particular has provided the Assad regime with diplomatic cover for years. There are no signs that this reality will change. Nor is there any indication that the US President is considering changing course. It's also unclear whether, in light of the absence of a dramatic change in the situation on Syria's battlefields, the "calculus" that the various parties have employed has changed.

In short, we should expect the status quo to continue. But "status quo" does not mean stability. If anything, Syria is one conflict where there are only two constants: the rising death toll, and the increasingly chaotic and shifting alliances of warring parties.

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Border Service Downplays Today's "Near Collision" With A Turkish Ship

This weekend, the Russian Ministry of Defence reported that one of its ships had fired warning shots at a Turkish fishing vessel in the Aegean, reportedly in order to avoid a collision. Reuters reports:

The Russian Defence Ministry said one of its warships, the destroyer Smetlivy, had been forced to fire the warning shots on Sunday morning and that it had summoned the Turkish military attache over the incident.

"The Turkish military diplomat was given a tough explanation about the potentially disastrous consequences from Ankara's reckless actions towards Russia's military contingent fighting against international terrorism in Syria," the Defence Ministry said in a statement.

Previously we reported on a second incident, which took place earlier today, in which a Turkish ship was reportedly ordered to change course after crossing paths with a Russian border-patrol convoy which was escorting an oil drilling rig.

Now the border service of Russian-occupied Crimea, which is under the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) appears to be downplaying the incident (translated by The Interpreter):

After communication was established, the Turkish ship, upon recommendation of the Black Sea Fleet, and for the purpose of securing the safety of ship navigation, changed its course and safely parted from the convoy. The distance of the separation was more than 2 nautical miles. The Turkish ship had not undertaken any attempts to stop or in any way interfere with the actions to tow the oil rig.

Interfax reported that in a telephone conversation with the FSB in the Crimea, an official called the incident "routine" (translated by The Interpreter):

"It's an ordinary, routine situation. According to nautical regluations, a ship must yield place to a convoy. It is very difficult for a convoy to change its course, much harder than one ship. The attention of the [Turkish] ship was attracted when the rockets [of the Black Sea Fleet] were released. It [the Turkish ship] took measures and then quietly departed."

But the English-language Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik is not downplaying the incident, instead running the headline "Two Russian Vessels Force Turkish Ship to Move Off Collision Course."

“Acting in violation of international law on the warning of ships crashing in the sea and the overall norms of marine transportation, the Turkish vessel did not give way to the caravan on a cross course and made an attempt to stop in the course [of the caravan], which obviously would create an emergency situation. The Turkish vessel’s captain did not contact the [Russian] ships by radio, nor did he respond to calls,” the gas company said in a statement.

"Caravan" is the literal translation of karavan, or convoy. 

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Secretary of State Kerry Headed to Moscow to Meet with Putin Tomorrow as Kremlin Unleashes Criticism of US on Syria
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been in Paris to attend the summit on climate change, is headed to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the State Department reports.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a testy statement today expressing "surprise" at recent statements by Kerry on Syria on the eve of the meeting (translation by The Interpreter):

The claim of some kind of "isolation" of Russia on the international stage is particularly awkward. Taking into account that the US Secretary of State is coming to our country for the second time in seven months -- and in fact, as in May, the visit is organized at the insistent behest of the American government -- such propagandistic attempts are simply ridiculous.

As we have repeatedly noted, Russia is open to constructive cooperation but it is possible only on the principles of equality and mutual respect. They may convince themselves in Washington of the "effectiveness" of sanctions against us as much as they like. As before, in defining areas for joint work with the US, we are guided by exclusively our own interests, including the task of strengthening our own and international security.

This relates to the Syrian issues to the fullest extent, about which Washington is looking for support fro American approaches which do not always coincide with international law. During the course of tomorrow's talks in Moscow, we hope to gain the necessary clarifications from the State Secretary.

For our part we will continue to obtain from the US Administration a review of the policy based on an effort to divide terrorists into "bad" and "good".
Unfortunately, even after the terrorist attack against the Russian passenger airline which took place October 31, the US is not displaying a readiness to establish full-fledged coordination with us in the battle with ISIL. Moreover, although a memorandum of flight safety of combat aviation in the Syrian skies was signed by both countries, Washington, taking upon itself the responsibility for actions of the whole coalition it heads, has not guaranteed implementation of the relevant statutes of that document by its ally, Turkey.
-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick