US and Russia Need to Cooperate

31 May 2015

During his first visit to Moscow on 6-8 July 2009 President Obama tried to “reset” relations. Unfortunately for the international community this failed to materialize. Russians probably preferred to wait and see. The Arab Spring led to a new set of confrontations. Snowden affair became an irritant and lead to the cancellation by Washington of an Obama-Putin summit that was to take place during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg on 5-6 September 2013. Yet their brief encounter there led to the 14 September 2013 agreement on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons only to be followed by the crisis in Ukraine.
Since the Syria chemical weapons deal which was indeed an achievement, both Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov have repeatedly said that the resolution of many international problems depend on their countries’ joint efforts, that together the US and Russia can make a difference, make things happen. I share their judgment. Yet, the US and Russia have hardly made concrete progress on anything since the Syria chemical weapons deal. Conflict over Ukraine has become a major stumbling block. They need to break the impasse.

There are four immediate issues which the two powers need to address. Three are interlinked.

Iraq/Daesh:
The world cannot allow Daesh further ground. Since the US and other non-regional powers are unwilling to puts boots on the ground an all-Arab force needs to be assembled with the support of the West and Russia. One way of combatting the jihadist ideology would be the restoration of Arab identity and self-confidence and raising it above sectarian differences. An Arab victory over Daesh, a joint effort to bring about inter-Arab peace may help achieve this. Surely there would be opposition to such a project by conservative circles in some Arab countries and fears of backlash. This can be overcome by a carefully orchestrated public discourse. Daesh has now given evidence of its reach inside Saudi Arabia through the bombing of a Shiite mosque. This should be a wake-up call for Riyadh. The people of Jordan surely have not forgotten air force pilot Kasaesbeh’s tragic end in the hands of Daesh. Egypt can make a major contribution to such an initiative.

Syria:
The US and Russia need to reinvigorate the Geneva political process and here Moscow needs to shoulder greater part of the responsibility. If the Iran nuclear deal comes through there would be a better chance of doing this. In any event, the position to be taken by Tehran would reveal Iran’s intentions about regional engagement. After Iraq, the Arab force can move into Syria to continue the assault on Daesh and/or eventually act as a peace-keeping force. If this could be preceded by progress in the political track so much the better.

Yemen:
Saudi Arabia has been given enough time for its military campaign. It must now be advised to support UN-led efforts for a political solution. It should be generous in extending unconditional economic assistance to its poor neighbor.
Since President Obama is right about military intervention buying time but not resolving fundamental problems, Arab countries should be encouraged to make a genuine effort towards political and economic reform. This may understandably be a process to gradually gain momentum but it needs to start sooner than later channeling Arab Spring fervor towards the unifying objective of democracy and prosperity if the worldview of Daesh is to be finally defeated.

Ukraine:
Both the West and Russia need to engage in some self-criticism. It appears that the only way to avoid a frozen conflict scenario is the accord Donetsk and Luhansk wide autonomy which would allow Kiev to focus on economic and political reform.

A “reset” in international relations can either be realized by solemn commitments at the highest level of by working together on a range issues. If the former approach is not possible then the latter needs to be given a chance. Compartmentalization of issues can help overcome difficulties involved in reaching broad understandings. Be it for a “reset” or not, the world would be delighted if Presidents Obama and Putin were to hold a summit in the near future. Had Turkey continued its democratic trajectory and refrained from getting unnecessarily involved in regional conflicts it could have provided an ideal venue.

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