The Cable

John Kerry Consults with Russians on Syria Less Than 48 Hours After Suspending Ties

Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the State Department announced a suspension in “bilateral channels with Russia” related to reducing the violence in Syria.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 09:  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov (L) talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the U.S. State Department on August 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. According to reports the meeting could help determine the fate of a planned summit meeting in September between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 09: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov (L) talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the U.S. State Department on August 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. According to reports the meeting could help determine the fate of a planned summit meeting in September between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the State Department announced a suspension in “bilateral channels with Russia” related to reducing the violence in Syria.

The Wednesday phone call between the two diplomats, first disclosed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, raised immediate questions about whether the United States was already backtracking on its threat to cut off ties with Moscow.

In acknowledging the phone call, State Department spokesman Mark Toner defended the high-level contact. “They did talk about the situation on the ground in Syria,” he said, “my argument back to you would be it would be irresponsible for Secretary Kerry not to raise what’s happening in Syria and make our concerns clear about what’s happening there.”

Toner faced stiff push back from reporters seeking to understand the practical extent of the suspension of ties. “You tell the Russians one thing, and then you turn around and don’t follow through on it,” Associated Press reporter Matt Lee said.

Toner said the suspension only applied to a diplomatic channel setup to sustain a cessation of hostilities in the country. Such a suspension apparently did not preclude talks between Kerry and Lavrov on Syria who have remained in near constant contact throughout the deadly civil war.

“While that particular bilateral channel has been suspended we’re not going to just walk away from what’s happening in Syria,” Toner said.

The State Department announced the halting of talks with Russia on Monday after a relentless bombing campaign by Russian and Syrian jets on the besieged city of Aleppo.

This is not a decision that was taken lightly,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at the time.

The U.S. also cancelled plans to share military intelligence to target the Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front.

Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, continue to call for military action against the Syrian government but U.S. officials have warned that regime change in Damascus could empower Sunni extremist groups and lead to even more chaos in the country.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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