At the end of a trip that circled the globe, the longest of his five months in office, Secretary of State John F. Kerry claimed progress Tuesday on a number of foreign policy issues bedeviling the Obama administration but resolution of none.
Speaking in Brunei after a meeting on Syria there with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said the two had built on earlier discussions and “narrowed down some of the options” for a still-unscheduled meeting between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition that was proposed a year ago.
On North Korea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Beijing’s commitment to increase pressure on the recalcitrant government in Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a closed-door meeting. The North’s foreign minister also attended the conference of Asia-
Pacific countries that had brought Kerry to the small sultanate on the island of Borneo.
Earlier on his 13-day journey, Kerry shuttled between Israelis and Palestinians to push for direct talks between them; visited Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait to coordinate support for Syrian rebels; and spent two days in India pledging expanded trade and security cooperation.
Kerry indicated in a statement to reporters before he left Brunei on Tuesday evening that the conference to name a transitional government for Syria is unlikely to take place before September. He and Lavrov had “agreed that it should happen sooner rather than later,” Kerry said, but his explanation for the delay conveyed little urgency. A high-level meeting between Russia and the United States would be difficult to schedule this month, he said, “and, obviously, August is very difficult for Europeans and others, so it may be somewhat thereafter.”
Beyond European vacation schedules, numerous outstanding issues have hindered implementation of a Syria accord signed in Geneva in June 2012.
Under the terms of the proposal endorsed by Russia, the United States and other countries, teams representing each side, chosen by “mutual consent,” would meet to undertake the transition to a new Syrian government. The United States, which has said that no end to the Syrian war is possible unless President Bashar al-Assad steps down, has made clear that the mutual-consent clause means that Assad would not be part of any transition deal.
Russia, Assad’s main diplomatic and military backer, has said that barring the Syrian leader from negotiations is an unacceptable precondition. In a meeting in Moscow in May, Kerry and Lavrov brushed over that disagreement and proposed that a second Geneva meeting take place within weeks.
The meeting has been repeatedly postponed, not only over the issue of Assad but also because the divided Syrian opposition has yet to choose a negotiating team or agree officially to attend.
In the meantime, the United States and other opposition supporters are trying to reverse recent military gains by Assad’s forces — aided by Hezbollah and Iranian militia forces — and have increased their financial and weapons support for the rebels. Senior administration officials have said that they believe that any transition meeting would have a better outcome if the rebels negotiated from a position of strength, or at least battlefield equality.
Kerry appeared to reject righting the military balance as a priority, saying Tuesday that “whether the Assad regime is doing better or the opposition is doing better is frankly not determinative of that outcome,” referring to a peace deal, “because that outcome requires a transition government.”
After his meeting with Lavrov, Kerry said he thought “it was important to note that the foreign minister believes as I do, and as I think President Obama and President [Vladimir] Putin believe, that there are two countries that can have the most significant difference on this question. They are Russia and the United States.”
“It was clear to me,” he said, that “what we both wanted to ascertain from each other is the level of seriousness and capacity to be able to do this.” He provided no details and took no questions.
Lavrov told Russian reporters that “the results of the meeting were useful, and we agreed on how to move forward on the basis of what we reached,” according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. He also said that Kerry had recognized that “consolidation” of the disparate Syrian opposition is the most important goal to achieve before a peace meeting can take place.
In Brunei, Kerry and Lavrov attended a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a group of Asia-Pacific nations that includes North Korea. At a reception for employees at the U.S. Embassy in Brunei before he left for a refueling stop at this U.S. base in Japan and on to Washington, Kerry said that he had no direct interaction with the North Koreans but that they were present for comments he made at the conference about “why denuclearization is so important.”
Whether they were listening was another matter. “Denuclearization is not going to happen,” Choe Myong-nam, a member of the North Korean delegation, said after the session.