The USA and Russia in the Syrian Crisis: Prospects for Reconciliation

29.10.2013

Both the US and Russia need to recognize that they control only part of the outcome of the Syrian conflict. The conflict now poses a challenge to the stability of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as to Israel, all of which are experiencing the impacts of the conflict to differing degrees.

The prospects for Geneva 2 are not good, not only because, as has been seen at the Friends of Syria meeting in London, no opposition group can be seen to negotiate directly with the government presided over by President Assad and maintain their credibility with the wider opposition movement; the Syrian National Coalition has already lost the support of many, if not most, of the armed and unarmed opposition groups in country, and has itself been weakened by internal divisions inspired in large part by the lack of substantive foreign support. Thus, with no one to talk to, it is doubtful whether anyone on the government side will find convincing interlocutors to engage with, and given doubts on the US side too, it is unlikely that Geneva 2 will actually take place.

In the face of the limited strategic planning of the US and its allies, Russian policy under President Vladimir Putin has appeared light-footed and coherent, over the chemical weapons issue above all. However, over the longer-term, Russian military and diplomatic support for the Assad presidency and government does not place Russia in a good position to play a mediating role, especially in terms of bringing the wider Syrian population, over 7 million of whom are now displaced by the conflict, into a settlement process. The diversity of internal and external opposition groups, both armed and unarmed, will also not accept that the external partner of one side in the conflict is sufficiently neutral to adjudicate over a negotiated settlement, even if they recognize that Russia could play a significant role in moderating the position of the Syrian government should it chose to do so.

Since the negotiating process is unlikely to go ahead as planned, for the reasons outlined above, there is an issue of sequencing here in terms of referring President Assad to the ICC. There is a significant weight of evidence concerning the use of conventional weaponry against civilian targets that under the appropriate international reviews could make the case for starting referral proceedings against President Assad, even before the time-limit for the chemical weapons process is complete; the UN also holds considerable data on the use of chemical weapons, as outlined in their recent report on the August 2013 attack, and this could be combined with other reported usages of chemical weapons to establish the basis for a parallel referral to the ICC. Until the diplomatic option of seeking a negotiated settlement has been exhausted, and the process of surrendering chemical weapons process has been completed, neither the US nor Russia has indicated their willingness to proceed along either of these routes.

In general, the short-term prospects for a solution are not good, because the international community remains divided over its analysis of the core source of the conflict, as well as its projected solutions. Addressing the chemical weapons issue is only part of the challenge, and until and unless the collective security of the Syrian people is put at the center of collective diplomatic energies, no piecemeal solution will address or resolve the underlying conditions for the restoration of peace. Even if highly significant, the chemical disarmament process has assumed a disproportionate role in international diplomacy, at the short-to-medium term cost of resolving the core conflict.

The conflict now poses a challenge to the stability of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as to Israel, all of which are experiencing the impacts of the conflict to differing degrees. Israel has so far held the perceived threat of Hezbollah in check, but the calculations of most actors are based on short-term security considerations, rather than on longer-term planning for overall regional stability which is in the interests of all of them.

Both the US and Russia need to recognize that they control only part of the outcome of the Syrian conflict, and that for the longer-term regional interests of both, they need to find more common ground to resolve the underlying issues that are now reshaping the whole Levant region. If both the US and Russia were to recognize that their positions no longer reflect the evolving realities on the ground, both within and beyond Syria, that they are not sustainable over the longer-term, nor are they contributing to the overall stability of the region, then there might be some prospect for reconciliation and closer bilateral cooperation over more than the chemical weapons issue. To do this, however, requires moving away from zero-sum calculations to a greater basis for compromise, above all in extending the authority of the UN to construct a peace-building process based on a wider range of Syrian and regional interests than is currently the case.

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

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