Our Syria policy is still a mess: These are the dots the media refuses to connect
Russia’s foreign minister reveals a strange talk with John Kerry, and explains much about American foreign policy
MOSCOW—Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s widely respected foreign minister, dropped a big one here last weekend. After an hour-long conversation with John Kerry, Lavrov asserted in nationally televised remarks that the American secretary of state told him he wanted Russian planes to stop bombing al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, in their air campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. GlobalSecurity.org carried the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty account of the exchange; it is here and worth a read.
“They are telling us not to hit it [al–Nusra] because there is ‘normal’ opposition next…to it,” Lavrov explained very soon after the two put their telephones down.
Going public with a diplomatic conversation cannot have been a decision Lavrov took lightly. And he surely did not intend to embarrass the Obama administration’s top diplomat with these assertions, although he did a pretty good job of it nonetheless. Equally, he may have had no intention of casting light on how distorting, impractical and costly Washington’s standoff with Moscow has become—in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere—but he did well on this score, too.
The State Department acknowledged Lavrov’s exchange with Kerry but parried that the latter had asked only that Russian bombers avoid targeting what the U.S.—and next to no one else—calls the “moderate opposition” in Syria. If you take this as a counter-argument, think again. It is a standard example of Washington’s familiar resort to evasion: Appear to confront the question forthrightly while subtly avoiding it altogether.
For the record, it has long been understood and occasionally acknowledged by those on the ground in Syria that many of the militias the U.S. has armed and trained are hopelessly tangled up with al–Nusra rebels. If you listen closely, this is not a matter of logistics or military strategy, and still less of happenstance. It is primarily a reflection of ideological affinity, given how regularly these groups are in and out of alliances with one another. Washington’s moderates, in other words, do not give much evidence of moderation. There is little ground left to qualify this even as a topic worth debate.