By Joyce Karam
In his first visit to Washington since 2013, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday to mainly discuss the Syrian war and seek support for Russia’s plan attempting to de-escalate the conflict.
While the initial location for the Tillerson-Lavrov meeting was planned for Alaska on the margins of the “Arctic Council Ministerial” summit, it was moved to Washington as per the US State Department announcement.
The two diplomats will “discuss Ukraine, Syria, and bilateral issues,” the State Department said. “On Ukraine, the sides will discuss the need to stop the violence in eastern Ukraine and resolve the conflict through the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
On Syria, “the secretary intends to discuss efforts to de-escalate violence, provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict.”
Charles Lister, a Syria analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that if “Russia gets what it wants, Syria will again be the first topic on the agenda” in Lavrov’s meetings.
“Moscow has invested all of its cards in the Astana process and the establishment of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria,” Lister said.
Yet the “lack of any enforcement mechanisms means” and that “Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are permitted to continue attacks on suspected Al-Qaeda-linked groups, which happen to be conveniently present in all four zones” should be of concern for the Trump administration, according to Lister.
“Russia has a great deal to lose should this initiative fall apart, which makes acquiring a more committed US statement of support extremely important,” added Lister, stressing that “Lavrov will be seeking just that on Wednesday.”
The US, however, has reacted with caution to the Astana plan. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described it during his recent trip to Denmark as being “It’s all in process right now.”
The US defense chief asked, “Who is going to be ensuring they’re safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them? All these details are to be worked out and we’re engaged.”
“We’ll look at the proposal, see if it can work,” said Mattis, keeping the priority on defeating Daesh in Syria. “Will it affect the fight against ISIS (Daesh)? I think the international community is united in the sense of wanting to see ISIS put on its back foot.”
“The devil is always in the details, right? So we have to look at the details, see if we can work them out, see if we think they’re going to be effective” Mattis said, promising “to at least examine it very, very carefully.” “All wars eventually come to an end. And we’ve been looking, for a long time, how to bring this one to an end,” he added.
Earlier, Tillerson and Lavrov deputies Thomas Shannon and Sergey Ryabkov met in New York to finalize the arrangements and the agenda for their bosses’ meeting.