20 September 21, 2015
I constantly stress the need for US-Russia cooperation in finding solutions to international conflicts, particularly those in the broad Middle East. I mention compartmentalization as a way out in the absence of a wide convergence of views. I concluded a spot in early June by saying that, “U.S. and Russia need to look at the feasibility of an Obama-Putin summit. The UN General Assembly meeting in September may provide a good opportunity.” (1) It appears that there is now some groundwork in this direction including the military-to-military US-Russia talks on Syria.
To find a reasonable way to end the Syrian conflict one may look at what has been said by people who could make a difference:
Lahkdar Brahimi (Former UN Envoy on Syria), May 18, 2014 :
“I think the Russian analysis was right at the beginning, but everybody thought that it was an opinion and not an analysis. The Russians were saying that Syria is not Egypt and it is not Tunisia, and the president of Syria is not going to fall in a matter of two or three weeks. People thought that this was not an analysis, it was an expression of position: We are going to support this regime.”
“Maybe, maybe if people listened to them, and went to them, and said, listen you clearly know the situation in Syria better than anybody else. Let’s sit down and see how we can help Syria solve its problems. Perhaps things would have been different. But that did not happen.” (2)
President Obama, September 11, 2015
“… And the good news is, is that Russia shares with us a concern about countering violent extremism and shares with us the view that ISIL is very dangerous. So despite our conflicts with Russia in areas like Ukraine, this is an area potentially of converging interest. The bad news is that Russia continues to believe that Assad, who is their traditional partner, is somebody that is worthy of continuing support. And it has been my view and the view of the United States government that as long as Assad is there, he has alienated so much of the Syrian population that it will not be possible to arrive at a peaceful cease-fire and political settlement, and you’ll continue to have this vacuum that’s filled by extremists.” (3)
Foreign Minister Steinmeier of Germany, September 11, 2015
“… For months now, a huge and rising number of Syrian refugees have been pouring across Europe’s borders every day, seeking safety from both the barrel bombs of the Assad regime and the carnage of Islamic State’s terrorist militia…
“… Differences between the West and Russia have prevented the United Nations Security Council from taking decisive action. Neighboring countries have been unable to overcome their rivalries over regional influence and deep-seated mistrust…
“…In less than a month after the nuclear agreement with Iran was reached in Vienna, Russia showed rare cooperation by shepherding, together with the United States, two decisions on Syria through the Security Council…
“…But there are worrying signs that this opportunity for progress on Syria is slipping away…
“… We should all use our influence to help launch this process before the window of opportunity before us closes, I fear, not in months, but in weeks…” (4)
President Putin, September 15, 2015
“… The so-called Islamic State controls significant stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria. Terrorists are already publicly stating that they have targets set on Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Their plans include expanding activities to Europe, Russia, Central and Southeast Asia… “
“… Of course, it is imperative to think about the political changes in Syria. And we know that President Assad is ready to involve the moderate segment of the opposition, the healthy opposition forces in these processes, in managing the state. But the need to join forces in the fight against terrorism is certainly at the forefront today. Without this, it is impossible to resolve the other urgent and growing problems, including the problem of refugees we are seeing now.
“… We were not the ones that destabilized the situation in those nations, in whole regions of the world. We did not destroy government institutions there, creating power vacuums that were immediately filled by terrorists. So nobody can say that we were the cause of this problem…” (5)
Former Finnish President and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari (on a conversation he had with Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russian Permanent Representative to the UN in February 2012), September 15, 2015
“The most intriguing was the meeting I had with Vitaly Churkin… We don’t necessarily agree on many issues but we can talk candidly. I explained what I was doing there and he said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’
“He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”
(Ahtisaari said that he passed on the message to the American, British and French missions at the UN but,) “Nothing happened because I think all these, and many others, were convinced that Assad would be thrown out of office in a few weeks so there was no need to do anything.” (6)
By abstaining on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 Russia allowed the West to take the initiative on Libya. It soon became clear that the West was aiming at regime change. Having witnessed Western eagerness to intervene militarily in Libya Russia denied them the possibility in Syria, a country with which Moscow enjoys a long-standing relationship. One should admit that the Libyan intervention did not prove to be a success and the Russians had a much more clear-headed assessment of the situation in Syria. The West and even a neighboring Turkey failed to see that Assad would not be on his way out in weeks. They organized ostentatious meetings in Istanbul and elsewhere in Europe in support of the opposition. They celebrated their dreams and engaged in big talk. Just as Moscow and Tehran supported the regime they supported the opposition. Their project failed to bear fruit. Who remembers the “Friends of the Syrian People Group” today?
It is worthy of note that Germany, the country which remained reserved on the interventionist policies of the West in the context the Arab Spring, is now bearing the brunt of the refugee problem. The refugee influx into Europe has led to tension between governments on the one hand and between security forces and migrants on the other. Some of this is understandable. However, both, but particularly the latter must be avoided because its continuation will only provide additional ground for ISIL’s propaganda regarding Western prejudice towards the peoples of the region.
Neil McFarquhar and Andrew A.Kramer of The New York Times expressed the view that the Syrian conflict is a golden opportunity for President Putin, a way out of isolation. They said,
“…The stakes for Mr. Putin are high — perhaps the highest in his career. The Kremlin has been on the defensive, diplomatically isolated after its adventures in Ukraine and battered economically by sanctions, low oil prices and a weak ruble that is cutting into living standards. Rapidly depleting the rainy day funds that have staved off financial disaster so far, Mr. Putin knows he needs to get back in the West’s good graces in a hurry, or at least change the conversation.
“Syria provides an ideal vehicle for that, while also giving Moscow a significant role in the Middle East and promoting Mr. Putin’s long-term ambitions of re-establishing Russia as a player on the world stage…”(7)
President Putin puts emphasis on fighting ISIL essentially for two reasons. Firstly, he sees ISIL as a real threat to Russia with reportedly thousands of Chechnian fighters in its ranks. He worries about Central Asia. Secondly, he wants the West to give priority to fighting ISIL rather than Assad and thus secure his survival until perhaps a “graceful exit” is worked out.
Russia may have suffered from the sanctions but so have the EU countries which appear more than willing to ease them should there be incremental progress in Ukraine. Now they also have a refugee problem which is only to get worse if the Syrian conflict and the Middle East chaos are allowed to continue. So they need Russia’s “good graces” in Syria as much as Russia needs theirs “to change the conversation”. Mr. Putin may indeed see an opportunity for Russian diplomacy as well as power projection in Syria. But his unacceptable intervention in Ukraine should not blur our vision: Russia is a player on world stage.
The future of Assad has for a long time been a major point of discord between the West, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the one side, Russia and Iran on the other. More important than his future, however, is the danger posed by the Islamic State (ISIL) which continues to entrench itself in Iraq and Syria. It is crystal clear that the US-led air campaign will never root it out.
The West and their regional allies have to free themselves of the “Assad obsession” and work with the Russians to secure his “graceful exit” at some point in the future. And, Russia and Iran would have to realize that Assad can never again rule a united Syria. As British Foreign Secretary said yesterday after his meeting with Secretary Kerry in London, the modality and the timing of Assad’s exit can be part of a discussion about a political solution.
The US and Russia also need to agree on a way to deal with ISIL because as President Obama says this is “an area of potentially converging interest”. Destroying ISIL requires ground forces, meticulous planning and extremely tight border security in countries neighboring Syria and Iraq. I can perfectly understand Mr. Obama’s determination not to put boots on the ground after the misguided Iraq intervention of his predecessor but the current situation is no longer sustainable. It is time to gather an Arab ground force to be supported by a strong coalition that also includes Russia. The UN General Assembly offers a good opportunity for agreement on principles if not details.
(1) US and Russia Need to Cooperate, June 11, 2015.
(2) Former UN Syria envoy says Iran plan on Syria ‘worth discussing’, Andrew Parasiliti, Al Monitor, May 18, 2014
(3) Remarks by the President in Town Hall at Fort Meade, September 11, 2015
(4) Break the Gridlock on Syria, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, The New York Times, September 11, 2015.
(5) President Putin’s Remarks at the Collective Security Treaty Organization Council Meeting in Dushanbe, September 15, 2015.
(6) West Ignored Russia’s offer in 2012 to have Syria’s Assad step aside, Julian Borger and Bastien Inzaurralde, The Guardian, September 15, 2015.
(7) Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria, Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, The New York Times, September 16, 2015.