When Russian President Vladimir Putin had a substantive meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry last week, it was an extremely rare departure from normal protocol. There was some political logic to the meeting, however, because Putin and Kerry have clearly been the primary drivers of their respective governments’ policies toward Syria, and their negotiations have already led to a stunningly successful Syrian ceasefire and possible Syrian negotiations on a political settlement.
Washington and Moscow had to cooperate in order to get that ceasefire along with the jump-starting of intra-Syrian negotiations, now scheduled to begin next month, according to UN special envoy Steffan de Mistura. But the diplomatic maneuvering did not involve equal influence on each other’s policies. Putin’s Russia has now demonstrated that it has effective leverage over the policy of Kerry and the United States in Syria, whereas Kerry has no similar leverage over Russian policy.
Kerry had appeared to be the primary driver of a political settlement last year, propelled by a strategy based on exploiting the military success of the Nusra Front-led opposition forces, armed by the United States and its allies, in northwestern Syria. Kerry viewed that success a way of put pressure on both the Assad regime and its Russian ally to agree that Assad would step down.