July 9, 2017
During his first visit to Moscow in July 2009 President Obama tried to “reset” US-Russia relations. It did not happen. 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 meeting that was to take place during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Yet, their brief encounter there on September 5, 2013 led agreement on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons only to be followed by the crisis in Ukraine.
After the Syrian chemical weapons deal which was an important achievement, both Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov repeatedly said that the resolution of many international problems depended on their countries’ joint efforts; that together the US and Russia could make a difference, make things happen.
At the end of meeting in the Belarusian capital in February 2015, Presidents Putin, Poroshenko, Hollande and Chancellor Merkel issued the “Declaration of Minsk in Support of the Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”. Yet, the Ukraine conflict remains as divisive as ever.
On February 22, 2016 the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. However, this hardly led to any progress in Syria’s political transition.
Thus, it became clear towards the end of President Obama’s second term in office that new initiatives for progress in US-Russia relations would have to wait for the next administration.
However, allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election led to more uncertainty. Nonetheless, in an interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press in May 2017, Secretary Tillerson said:
“… the President, I think, has made it clear that he feels it’s important that we re-engage with Russia. The relationship with Russia, as he has described and I have described as well, is, I think, at an all-time low point since the end of the Cold War with a very low level of trust. I think the world – and it’s in the interest of the American people, it’s in the interest of Russia, the rest of the world, that we do something to see if we cannot improve the relationship between the two greatest nuclear powers in the world. So the President, I think, is committed to at least make an effort in that regard, and he has certainly asked me to make an important effort as well…
“… what I hear from the leaders of the other nations, Europe and more broadly – and the subject of Russia comes up in all of our conversations – is all the other nations want the U.S. and Russia to work towards improving our relationship as well, for all the reasons that I just mentioned…” (emphasis added)
It now appears that Presidents Putin and Trump have made a good beginning at their first meeting on the margins of the G-20 summit in Hamburg. This is also good news for the Middle East. The meeting lasted much longer than expected and in separate remarks to the press after the meeting both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson delivered optimistic assessments:
Mr. Lavrov said:
“… The atmosphere was constructive. As I said in the beginning, the tone was set by the desire of both presidents to promote the national interests of Russia and the United States, respectively. It was determined by the understanding that each country will be able to do this better if we cooperate and seek a balance of interests, and also if we work for stabilization in different parts of the world, where the situation is very turbulent, be it the Middle East or North Africa, the Korean Peninsula or Afghanistan…”
And, Secretary Tillerson said:
“… the meeting was very constructive. The two leaders, I would say, connected very quickly. There was a very clear positive chemistry between the two. I think, again — and I think the positive thing I observed — and I’ve had many, many meetings with President Putin before — is there was not a lot of re-litigating of the past. I think both of the leaders feel like there’s a lot of things in the past that both of us are unhappy about. We’re unhappy, they’re unhappy.
“… We simply have to find a way to go forward. And I think that was — that was expressed over and over, multiple times, I think by both Presidents, this strong desire…”
The first concrete result of the shared desire to cooperate, when and where possible, was the announcement by Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson of agreement on de-escalation zones in southwest Syria which entered into force today at noon. In other words, four years later, again at a G-20 summit, Russian and American presidents achieved something concrete against all odds.
It is now understood that discussions between Russia, Jordan and the US had been going on for some time independently of the Astana process where the US remains an observer, not a participant. And, it seems that America’s concerns about Astana, not least of which is the role of Iran as a guarantor of that process will continue.
The three parties to this latest de-escalation effort have undertaken to use their influence with the fighting groups to freeze the conflict. Questions such as the rules that would govern the southwest de-escalation area and the deployment of monitoring forces are still under discussion, but Secretary Tillerson expressed optimism that these could be resolved in less than a week. He also reiterated the American position that there can be no long-term role for the Assad family or the Assad regime in Syria.
Minister Lavrov, on the other hand, mentioned as crucial that the agreed document clearly confirms the commitment of Russia, Jordan and the United States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and the UN Security Council resolutions which laid the foundation for promoting a political settlement. This, he said “is the agreement that both presidents welcomed today.”
Talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the main opposition groups are to resume tomorrow in Geneva.
For six years, external powers involved in the Syrian conflict have repeatedly said, “there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict”. Indeed when, if ever, the conflict comes to an end there will be no battlefield victors and the biggest loser will be the people of Syria. However, these powers now appear to be positioning themselves for the next phase of the conflict because ISIS almost dislodged from Mosul and Raqqa may fall soon after that. Winning the battles for Mosul and Raqqa will not mark the end of ISIS but indications are that with Iraq still facing huge challenges of national reconciliation and Syria now only a shadow of its former self, “Syria’s configuration beyond ISIS” and “maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity” are moving up on the agenda.
If the region is indeed moving towards the post-ISIS stage of the current chaos, all those involved in the conflict, particularly countries with a history of interventions in the Middle East, should take a careful look at what Zbigniew Brzezinski had to say in his article, “Strategic Vision Toward a Global Realignment” published in “The American Interest” on April 17, 2016 (*). In this article, Mr. Brzezinski mentioned five basic verities regarding the emerging redistribution of global political power and the violent political awakening in the Middle East that are signaling the coming of a new global realignment. He said:
“… The fifth verity is that the currently violent political awakening among post-colonial Muslims is, in part, a belated reaction to their occasionally brutal suppression mostly by European powers. It fuses a delayed but deeply felt sense of injustice with a religious motivation that is unifying large numbers of Muslims against the outside world; but at the same time, because of historic sectarian schisms within Islam that have nothing to do with the West, the recent welling up of historical grievances is also divisive within Islam…”
And, he gave striking examples including Afghanistan and Iraq.
President Trump, addressing an enthusiastic Polish crowd in Warsaw a day before the G-20 summit in Hamburg, described the West’s battle against “radical Islamic terrorism” as a way to protect “our civilization and our way of life.” What Mr. Trump seems to overlook is that the objective of defeating ISIS and its distorted ideology is also shared wholeheartedly by hundreds and hundreds of million Muslims who want to shape a better, enlightened future for their children. Moreover, the West and their regional allies also need to realize that seizing the battle with ISIS as an opportunity to redesign the Middle East, to “update” Sykes-Picot or targeting Iran would only lead to more chaos. Those who criticize the Iran nuclear deal need to take a good look at North Korea. Tehran, after a long, tough but civilized negotiation process made a deal with the P5+1 and is meeting its obligations as confirmed by the IAEA. Who wouldn’t wish that Pyongyang had taken a similar approach years ago?
The way to stop the Middle East from being an area of global competition and a source of trouble for the world is to convince the regional countries to sit around a table and resolve their differences. Only such an approach will have a long-term chance of ending the current chaos and regional leaders’ blame games. This too will take time. Its success will require a coordinated effort, genuine international support and transforming the anti-ISIS coalition into a coalition for stability. Otherwise, a new chapter of trouble will be opened only to perpetuate West’s dreaded refugee problem.