New Syrian constitution by August: Russia, US push for political solutions at Moscow talks

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands following a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 24, 2016. © Andrew Harnik
Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and the US’ John Kerry agreed to push for a political transition in Syria by having a new draft constitution ready by August. The Kremlin-hosted talks revealed a softer, more cooperative tone on Syria, as well as Ukraine.

The discussions lasted over four hours and involved Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Ambassador to Russia John F. Tefft.

“We agreed on a target schedule for establishing a framework for a political transition [in Syria] and also a draft constitution, both of which we targeted by August,” Kerry told journalists at a joint news conference with Lavrov following the meeting.

Lavrov also said that both parties had agreed to use their influence to push the Syrian government to engage in “direct talks” with the opposition in order to accelerate discussions on a political transition that could help end Syria’s civil war.

“As the immediate task, we have agreed to push for the soonest start of direct talks between the government delegations and the whole spectrum of the opposition” that will help to create “a transitional governance structure” for Syria, Lavrov said.

The Russian FM pointed out that there are still a number of issues that Moscow and Washington don’t agree on, but maintained that this would not prevent them from cooperating “on an equal footing” on the problems on which they have found common ground.

“The US has plenty of partners who do not agree with them... It does not mean that the differences on one particular issue should stop them from talking at all,” Lavrov said.

At the start of the talks, Kerry told Lavrov that the partial truce in Syria was working and reducing the level of violence in the country. “It’s fair to say three weeks ago there were very, very few people who believed a cessation of hostilities was possible in Syria,” Kerry said. “The result of that work has produced some progress. There has been a fragile nevertheless beneficial reduction in violence.”

The tone of Russia-US relations appeared softer than it has been for some time on many issues, including Syria and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as both parties demonstrated an apparent desire to improve bilateral relations.

Kerry said that the productive eleven-month collaboration of Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station (ISS) should serve as an example for cooperation between the two world powers.

“When they were telling me about how they spent their time in space, they highlighted that their close cooperation demonstrated not only what the two astronauts could do, but what two countries could achieve together as well,” Kerry said at the press conference.

As an example, Lavrov noted that Russian and US experts could hold joint consultations to discuss the most effective ways to fight cybercrime.

When it came to Ukraine, both sides agreed that the Minsk Accords must be fully implemented.

“We have indeed pledged to ensure that Donbass, that the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk [DPR and LPR], implement what they and their representatives signed under in Minsk,” Lavrov said, while calling on his US counterpart to ensure that similar pressure is put on Kiev.

Kerry reiterated that once the agreement is “fully implemented,” the US will be ready to roll back sanctions on Russia.

Meanwhile, Lavrov confirmed that Moscow is closely monitoring the health of Ukrainian national Nadezhda Savchenko. “We have confirmed that Savchenko’s health condition, that many try to speculate on, presents no concerns,” Lavrov said. “She is under constant monitoring of Russian doctors.”

Savchenko, a Ukrainian Air Force officer detained in Russia in 2014, was found guilty of murdering two Russian journalists near Lugansk in eastern Ukraine, and of illegally crossing the Russian border. The decision was made by a court in the southern Russian town of Donetsk on Monday.

Kerry, who has called for Savchenko to be sent back to Ukraine, told reporters that Putin indicated that at some point “we will be able to address the issue of Savchenko.”

Following the talks in Moscow, Aleksey Pushkov, the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for International Relations, noted that Russia and the US are beginning to develop a closer relationship based on America’s pressing needs, which are forcing the US to forget about its previous goal to isolate Russia.

“About Kerry’s visit: there is nothing more powerful in politics than need. Under its influence, forgetting about isolating Russia, the US has begun to move,” Pushkov tweeted.