The Syrian Factor: Is There a Way out of the Political Deadlock?

16.09.2015

The entire world is discussing the Russian proposals to unite all robust forces – the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the Kurdish self-defense fighters and all regional states – and render them effective international support.

The Syrian crisis is more than four years old. In its early years, Western countries, primarily the United States, openly placed their bets on overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad government. In the process they were directly or indirectly arming the opposition, despite realizing that the number of extremists in its ranks was steadily growing.

At that time President Barack Obama and the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly declared that al-Assad's days were numbered and that his regime was illegitimate.

New nuances appeared in Washington’s position with John Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State. He began talking about the need for political settlement, which Moscow had supported from the very outbreak of the conflict.

Owing to an initiative by President Vladimir Putin, an agreement was reached in 2013 on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and the holding of a Geneva conference on settlement in that country. Alongside other international players, Russia and the United States actively cooperated to ensure the implementation of the agreement on eliminating chemical weapons. Washington cooperated with Damascus in this regard (an example of double standards: when necessary, the Syrian government turns out to be legitimate).

Regrettably, the Geneva conference failed to produce the desired effect. Nevertheless Russia actively supported the efforts to find a political solution to the problem. This year Academician Vitaly Naumkin and I twice took part in consultations between the Syrian opposition and the al-Assad government, which were organized by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Both the authorities and sensible opposition forces proceed from the premise that everything should be done to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and unity, and to rebuff the wild cutthroats from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

In the past year and a half it has become clear to the entire world that the main threat to peace and stability in the Arab East and, in particular, Syria and Iraq, is emanating from extremists who want to create a caliphate from Portugal to Pakistan under the guise of religious slogans. In the process, according to US secret services, they are planning to stage a number of terrorist acts in the West and are not concealing their desire to get hold of weapons of mass destruction. (Many ISIS military operations are planned by Iraqi officers from Saddam Hussein’s army that was disbanded after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

Tensions in the region are running very high, with ISIS militants having seized considerable territories of Syria and Iraq. The Syrian army is the main military force that is opposing them single-handedly, because the Iraqi armed forces are not yet strong enough.

In this context, the entire world is discussing the Russian proposals to unite all robust forces – the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the Kurdish self-defense fighters and all regional states – and render them effective international support. This idea is becoming increasingly popular. This is why some Western media have staged an uproar over Russia’s regular arms supplies to the al-Assad government, although Moscow has never concealed its military support for Syria.

As The Washington Post wrote the other day, President Putin’s position is fairly consistent. From the very start, he has been trying to block all US-backed attempts to oust al-Assad from power and compel the West to make his regime a partner in the struggle against ISIS.

At present, many Western capitals are continuing to debate the Russian proposals. They believe these proposals may become a real way out of the current deadlock, which is fraught with unpredictable risks considering the migration issue.

According to Bloomberg commentator Josh Rogin, some advisers in the Obama administration intend to seriously coordinate their efforts with Moscow on this issue. The hawks also maintain strong positions. As the London-based Times wrote, they are rejecting these ideas only because they are coming from Moscow.

Some European newspapers wrote that many European capitals are beginning to realize that it will be impossible to cope with this monstrous evil – ISIS – without agreements with Moscow and Iran. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said as much the other day. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy spoke in the same vein.

Now the ball is in the Western court, but there is no time to waste. Tomorrow may already be too late.

Veniamin Popov is Director of the Center for the Partnership of Civilizations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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