Syrian President Assad’s visit to Moscow and Russian President Putin’s address at the annual Valdai Forum were the key foreign policy events of the week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with President of Syria Bashar al-Assad in Kremlin, Oct. 20, 2015. Photo:

This was a week that saw a number of important developments related to the Syrian crisis. On Oct. 20 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Moscow on board a Russian plane for an unannounced visit with the Kremlin leadership, and on Oct. 23, Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry met for talks in Vienna. Against the backdrop of these events, analysts and journalists carefully monitored President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the annual Valdai Forum.

The arrival of Assad in Moscow

The visit to Moscow was the Syrian leader’s first trip abroad since 2011. Assad’s meeting with Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia still considers him to be a key figure in resolving the crisis. Moreover, it was revealed during a meeting of the Valdai Club in Sochi that Damascus is ready to collaborate with the armed Syrian opposition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

In Moscow, the two presidents discussed military cooperation and future talks on a peaceful settlement. Immediately afterwards, Putin telephoned the leaders of the other Middle Eastern countries involved in the Syrian conflict — the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and the presidents of Turkey and Egypt. Judging by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unconcealed irritation, not all issues produced mutual understanding.

The meeting of Lavrov and Kerry in Vienna

On Oct. 23 Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry met for talks in Vienna, followed by consultations with the foreign ministers of the Persian Gulf countries and Turkey on the crisis in Syria. Russia insists on joint action to combat ISIS. However, the Gulf Arab countries are fearful of rising Iranian influence in the region, and alongside the United States, continue to push for the overthrow of Assad as the main objective of the coalition. Russia’s proposals to involve Iran in the negotiations were rejected.

Two days earlier, the United States and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to avoid clashes in the Syrian sky. It seeks to establish operational communications between the two countries’ military commands and mutual assistance in crisis situations. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook pointed to the limited nature of cooperation with Russia:

“The MOU does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence sharing or any sharing of target information in Syria. The discussions through which this MOU has developed do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia’s policy or actions in Syria.”

Washington’s rejection of full cooperation with Moscow on Syria is conditioned by fears of upsetting its Gulf allies and strengthening Russia’s positions in the region. The White House is struggling to frame a comprehensive regional strategy and needs to play for time. The Obama administration is taking care to avoid serious blunders. Another major factor is that the U.S. establishment is divided on cooperation with Russia.

On Oct. 21 it was reported that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had provided the Russian embassy in Washington with maps showing the positions of ISIS terrorists. They were not classified and of unknown operational significance, but the gesture is symbolic. Russian-U.S. cooperation on Syria can be strengthened, but remains contingent on the frontline situation and the positions of U.S. allies in the region.

Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Club

On Oct. 22 President Putin addressed the 12th annual meeting of the Valdai Club in Sochi. His speech contrasted the historical approach to politics — based on an understanding of the causes and consequences of international events — with the “progressive” idea of revolution at any cost, thereby offering a conceptual alternative to Barack Obama’s notion of the “right” and “wrong” side of history, which the Russian leader called “manipulative.”

Putin’s Valdai speech once again attacked the United States for its actions in the Middle East and the post-Soviet space, yet encouraged Washington to cooperate in international affairs. Putin stated that competition between great powers is a natural occurrence. However, he specified that non-compliance with the rules of such competition could lead to unmanageable global processes and a state of permanent crisis.

In response to questions from the floor, Putin called for the defeat of terrorism in Syria and declared the only constructive way out of the situation to be for Damascus to restore full sovereignty. Failing that, the region is set to become a permanent conflict zone, drawing in all neighboring powers.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.