Editor’s note: This article is the fifth piece of a five-part series that examines the bizarre and at times uncanny relationship between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. Click to read the first, second, third and fourth articles.
The contrast in their personas has clearly affected the ways in which John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov project their style and thoughts on bilateral relations.
John, 72, leans like a giraffe; Sergey is 65, but stands like a Russian bear. The two have had starkly different experiences growing up on either side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
Kerry is said to have an aristocratic ancestry , and with his wife’s fortune, they’re a billionaire couple. Lavrov, on the other hand, is a lifelong diplomat who presumably lives on a government salary.
John has travelled through Europe growing up, fought in Vietnam, won three medals, became an anti-war veteran, served three decades in the United States Senate, and was the Democratic nominee in the 2004 presidential elections.
Sergey, on the other hand, has been a bureaucrat all his life, moving up the ranks to become Russia’s top diplomat in 2004 when he must have learned all there is to know about Kerry.
Kerry’s vast, diverse, rich experiences and ambitions contrast radically with Lavrov’s linear background. But what Sergey lacks in terms of diversity and imagination, he makes up for in stubbornness and diplomatic orthodoxy.
YES man and NO man
As time passed, Kerry and Lavrov began to steer international diplomacy jointly rather than separately. Their disagreements decreased, meaning that they either both made compromises, or one gave way to the other.
Records show that Kerry has given in to Lavrov on many or most occasions when he was simply manipulated by his Russian counterpart while Moscow continued to make advances in Syria.
So far, the diplomatic progress on Syria has fed on US compromises; all the while, the country devolved into the greatest disaster of modern times.
Critics say the Obama administration claim Kerry has not merely bowed or kneeled, he’s said to have “laid prostrate” to Lavrov.
But the Obama administration has mainly compromised on Syrian, not American rights.
For example, in mid-May 2013, an excited Kerry announced to the world that he and his “friend Sergey” agreed to co-host a Syrian peace conference in Geneva.
Kerry went out of his way to thank President Vladimir Putin for his generous hospitality, only to learn from the US intelligence agencies that the Russians were supplying the Assad regime with advanced missiles. The meeting was clearly a waste of time; a Russian joke, and the joke was on Kerry.
Even the wording of their initiative was slanted in favour of the Russian position. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Russian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee of the day, commented that Kerry had finally accepted Russia’s position on Syria.
A position that was echoed in the US Senate, where Senator John Barrasso criticised Kerry’s “hat-in-hand” diplomacy: “Asking Russia to support US interests in Syria is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.”
For three years, from Geneva I to Geneva II, to Vienna, to the UN Security Council resolution 2254 on Syria, and to Geneva III, the US compromised and Russia gained more leverage, and were able to provide the Syrian regime with more clout.
It got even worse after Russia intervened directly on Bashar al-Assad’s side in September 2015, taking the lead in bombing opposition strongholds. But instead of zeroing on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda, Russia focused its bombing spree on the Free Syrian army and other “moderate” opposition.
When things got out of hand in Syria at the beginning of February 2016, Kerry insisted on an immediate ceasefire to take hold within a week.
But Russia, entering the fifth month of its bombing campaign, was helping Assad make major advances against the opposition. Russia agreed to Kerry’s call but, as it insisted, no ceasefire would take effect until the end of the month.
Known in US foreign policy circles as the NO man, Lavrov seemed to stay true to his reputation and always get his way. On the other hand, Kerry seemed to play the role of the YES man, in order to “get stuff done”.
This was despite Kerry’s warnings of a “Plan B” if diplomacy doesn’t work, was transparently false and Lavrov could call his bluff. The US secretary of state had no leverage whatsoever, alas.
As time passed, there was no more talk of a new transitional ruling body with executive authorities that would sideline Assad, but rather a national unity government with Assad in place – a real setback for the US and its regional allies and, more importantly, to the Syrian opposition.
Did the Obama administration fail Syria and err in its assessment of the Russian military intervention? No doubt. But it also continued to build on Russia’s new role as the patron of the Syrian regime.
Publicly, Kerry continued to shower compliments and appreciations on the Russian regime. To call it schmoozing would be an understatement.
“Without Russia’s cooperation I’m not sure we would have been able to have achieved the ceasefire agreement in Syria,” Kerry said. The secretary also underlined Russia’s broad cooperation in Vienna’s meetings on Syria, which “could not have happened without Russia’s input”, or Moscow’s teamwork in reaching Iran’s nuclear deal.
And so when the Russians began to pull out some of their hardware from Syria in March 2016, Obama and Kerry could claim that engagement paid off, and that Putin wasn’t the crazy, unpredictable man he was portrayed as in Washington.
But that also proved short-lived, as Russia continued and even expanded its bombing campaigns into the summer.
The Russian humiliation of the US in Syria became so embarrassing that Kerry saw no point in trying to sign on to another deal that was bound to be violated before the ink dried.
But the humanitarian disaster in Syria and the international public outcry forced Kerry and Lavrov to meet once again at the end of August and the beginning of September.
But the deal they reached last week was a security, not a political agreement. One that envisioned a ceasefire in parts of Syria coupled with intensified war against ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliates in other parts of the country.
The deal gave Moscow ever more clout and underlined the role of the Assad regime as a partner in any future arrangement.
Kerry’s counterparts in the Pentagon and CIA, and Washington’s relevant allies in the region, are said to be unhappy with the agreement.
Whether the deal holds or not – and judging from past record it won’t last long – the ceasefire will only strengthen Putin and Assad, at least in the short run.
After a dozen-plus peace plans from Annan and Brahimi to Geneva I, II, III IV, and Vienna, diplomacy continues to thrive while Syria perishes. It’s like saying the surgery succeeded but the patient died.
The real deal
In light of Obama’s failure to articulate and implement a sound Syria policy, Kerry’s role was focused on conflict or crisis management. Obama wanted to avoid the US involvement in the Syrian conflict at all costs, and Kerry was the man for the job.
On the other hand, Putin wanted at all costs to get involved in Syria, including major military deployment. And Lavrov was the man to reap the rewards. Putin left Washington no other realistic option once Russia became entrenched in Syria.
With this in mind, and despite the US-led sanctions imposed on Russia following its “meddling” in Ukrainian affairs, Kerry found common ground with Lavrov on Syria.
In fact, it seems to me that the Obama administration has made the strategic decision to cooperate with an emboldened Russia as the best way forward.
It proved easier for the US to work with the “adults in the room”, namely the Russians, than to deal with Assad, Hezbollah and their Iranian backers in Tehran.
Indeed, the Obama administration appears to prefer working within the dynamics of great power politics than working as a lone superpower. Preferring accommodation to confrontation.
Kerry and Lavrov have reached agreements on cessation of hostilities in Syria, only after their bosses to seal it in a meeting or a phone call.
In the process, Syria has become a bargaining chip between two world powers, a retrenching US and an agitated Russia that is exploiting Syria to regain its regional and international standing.
Obama is clearly betting on the fact that while Putin might have won his Syria bet, only Washington could cash in his chips.
And to that end, Kerry and Lavrov have emerged as the best suited diplomats to manage such a deformed and lopsided balance of power between the US and Russia.
When the two powers disagreed, Syria plunged further into civil and proxy war, and when they began to agree to a transitional political process, it seems they had deferred the issue of the dictator stepping down at the outset or the midst of the transition.
As one of my favourite proverbs goes, when elephants fight the grass is crushed, and when elephants make love, the grass is crushed.
In the absence of a deal on Ukraine and the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia, expect diplomacy to fail successfully, and Syria to suffer more and more.
Always remember, Kerry-Lavrov diplomacy is only a reflection of the Obama-Putin legacy. And in Syria, it proved unconscionable.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.