The New START treaty, the only remaining legally binding US-Russian agreement on nuclear arms control that has been in force since 2011, is due to expire in February 2021, with the Trump administration having repeatedly indicated it would be allowed to come to an end unless a new deal was signed to include other nations, mainly China.

Russian and US officials have embarked upon a third round of nuclear arms-control talks in the Austrian capital with the 2010 New Strategic Arms Treaty (New START) is set to expire in February 2021.

The meeting in Vienna is led by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea.

The two sides are locked in discussions over the fate of their last remaining nuclear arms-control agreement, which caps the number of nuclear warheads Russia and the US can deploy at 1,550. The agreement also places limitations on the use of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ICBM launchers.

US President Donald Trump earlier indicated he would prefer a new deal to include other nations, mainly China, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has gone on the record as underscoring that Russia wants to extend the New START as soon as possible, but without preconditions.

No apparent breakthrough was visible after the previous rounds of talks in June, when Billingslea said the US was "leaving all options on the table" regarding the future of the treaty, including extending it.

Beijing was invited to the talks but did not send its delegation there.

Washington has been setting forth three key preconditions for a possible extension of the treaty.

Verification

Firstly, Ambassador Marshall S. Billingslea suggested US dissatisfaction with New START’s verification measures, without specifying any details, and against the backdrop of the State Department’s annual compliance report confirming that Russia was meeting the treaty’s terms. Nevertheless, verification measures were designated as the third condition for a New START extension.

More ‘Comprehensive’ Treaty

Washington’s second condition dealt with extending the negotiations to include nuclear arms not constrained by New START, especially Russia’s large number of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

The US insistence on introducing the newest Russian weapons systems into the talks is basically a matter of “knocking on an open door”, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in July.Earlier, in February, Lavrov emphasized that in previous contacts between the sides it was explained to the US that Russia would be willing to leave open the possibility that some of the newest rocket systems could be the subject of discussion, despite the fact that they are weapons outside the classic terms of START-3.

Bringing China to the Table

The president’s “arms control” envoy, Marshall Billingslea, told The Washington Times on 7 May that before there is talk about an extension of New START, Russia must “bring the Chinese to the negotiating table.”

Beijing has dismissed the overtures as long as Russian and US nuclear arsenals remain orders of magnitude larger than China’s.

While Washington has been urging Russia to sway the Chinese stance on the issue, Moscow has responded by saying it is up to Beijing to make that decision.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in February that Moscow “will not try to convince China” to join the talks.

China considers the United States' attempts to engage Beijing in trilateral US-China-Russia arms control talks as a ploy by Washington to overshadow its pursuit of nuclear hegemony, Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui said.

"The US has repeatedly made proposals on arms control for China, Russia and the US and promoted the 'China factor' to distract international attention, pursuing to justify its withdrawal from the US-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [New START] and pursuing 'self-liberation' and achievement of absolute strategic advantage. China and Russia see this very clearly," Zhang said.

Be that as it may, the parties to the current talks might be construed as having geared up for a constructive dialogue, with Marshall Billingsley tweeting that one of the most representative US delegations, which included high-ranking military personnel, was dispatched to Vienna, intent on “serious dialogue”.

The level of Russian representation, according to Sergei Ryabkov, is appropriate, so there is a chance that START-3 is not entirely doomed.

Anti-US Protests Grip Hasakah, Qamishli in Wake of Attack on Syrian Troops 

On Monday morning, US forces attacked a Syrian Army checkpoint southeast of Qamishli, northeastern Syria, killing one soldier and injuring two others. The attack reportedly took place after troops at the checkpoint prevented a US military convoy from entering the area.

Residents of Hasakah and Qamishli, two of the largest cities in Hasakah Province, took to the streets on Tuesday for mass demonstrations against the US presence in their country in the wake of Monday’s attack on a Syrian Army position.

Photos and videos allegedly depicting the scene of the protests have appeared online showing locals armed with flags of the Syrian Arab Republic, banners of President Bashar Assad, and signs demanding the withdrawal of US forces. According to a SANA reporter on the scene, demonstrators chanted slogans calling for US and Turkish occupation forces to be expelled from Syrian land. One of the protests even purportedly saw demonstrators burning an American flag.

 Smaller demonstrations also reportedly took place in rural communities outside the city of Qamishli.

 Local tribal leaders, as well as Hasakah City Orthodox Archbishop Mor Maurice Amsih, took part in the demonstrations, with Amsih calling the US attack an act of “hostility” against the Syrian people, and expressing confidence that all foreign forces who entered his country illegally would eventually be expelled.

The Syrian and US militaries have released diverging accounts of how Monday’s incident took place.

According to Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Col. Myles Caggins III, US and allied Kurdish troops came under small arms fire coming from the vicinity of a Syrian Army checkpoint while “conducting a routine anti-ISIS* security patrol at about 9:20 A.M., with coalition troops returning fire. “The Coalition did not conduct an airstrike", the spokesman stressed.

However, a Syrian military source told SANA that the US patrol “opened several rounds of fire” after Syrian Army forces at the Tal al-Zahab checkpoint prevented it from passing at about 9:45 A.M. “After about 30 minutes, two US warplanes attacked the Army personnel at the checkpoints with heavy machine guns as a soldier was martyred and two others were injured", the source said.

Control of oil and gas-rich northeastern Syria is divided between the Syrian government, the US, and its Kurdish allies, as well as Turkey-backed militants who entered the area during Ankara's abortive invasion in late 2019. The regions of Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor contain tens of billions of dollars in untapped energy wealth, and Damascus has sought to return these areas to its control to help pay for reconstruction following long war against foreign-backed rebels and terrorist groups. Washington and President Donald Trump, however, have repeatedly expressed US plans to "keep" Syria's oil, and to prevent it from falling into the hands of either the Syrian government or terrorist remnants. 

The complex security situation in the area has led to repeated tense confrontations between Syrian civilians and troops and US forces in the region.

Damascus has repeatedly emphasised that US forces have no legal basis for their continued presence in the country. US forces entered the war-torn country on the pretext of battling ISIS in 2016, establishing a presence in Syria's northeast, as well as a strip of land in the south near the Jordanian and Iraqi border, which they turned into a garrison and training base for anti-government rebels.