Towards an International Agreement on Syria?

Following a long conversation between Presidents Obama and Putin at the recent G20 Summit in Mexico, U.S. officials claimed that progress had been made in identifying areas where U.S. and Russian interests coincide. “We agreed that we need to see a cessation of violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war,” President Obama stated. For his part, Vladimir Putin claimed “[w]e have found many common points on this issue.”

After follow-up meetings, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, have agreed to attend an international summit on Syria to be convened in Geneva on June 30 by the UN and Arab League Special Envoy, Kofi Annan.

“Yet in spite of some encouraging signs over the past few days, doubts remain regarding the ability of Russia and the West to overcome their differences at the upcoming conference.”

The aim of the meeting is to “identify the steps and measures to secure full implementation” of Mr. Annan’s six-point plan and to bring “an immediate cessation of violence in all forms,” Mr. Annan said in a statement released at the United Nations office in Geneva. The meeting will also seek to unite the countries behind proposals for a Syrian-led political transition “that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” the statement said.

Along with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lavrov, the foreign ministers of Britain, China and France will attend the meeting. Also invited are emissaries from Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, the European Union and the Arab League, as well as Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General.

U.S.-Russian agreement on the way forward in Syria is vital if a meaningful international accord is to be reached. Russia is the Assad regime’s most important ally, its key arms supplier, and—importantly—a veto-wielding protector in the Security Council.  For the past 18 months, the West and Russia have been at loggerheads, making it impossible to secure any significant international agreement on Syria. Now, finally, Russia and the U.S. appear to be moving in the direction of trying to work together.

Kofi Annan has expressed optimism that the talks in Geneva would produce an acceptable result: “I think we are going to have a good meeting” on Saturday, he told Reuters television in Geneva in advance of the weekend encounter in Switzerland. At the meeting, Mr. Annan is expected to put forward a proposal for a national unity cabinet that includes opposition figures.

It could be argued that significant strategic reasons underpin Russian and American statements about “common points” on Syria; indeed, it would seem that both Moscow and Washington have increasingly strong incentives to try to reach an agreement at the upcoming meeting. Russian officials have long expressed interest in a Syrian solution that protects Moscow’s influence on its Arab ally, maintains its Mediterranean port facilities open, and secures its business and arms sales links in the region. As the Syrian regime loses ground to the opposition, these interests appear threatened—so it would make perfect sense for Russia to pursue a solution that does not simply involve supporting Mr. Assad. Furthermore, it could be argued that Russia’s own interest demands that it assert its authority as a major international player and take action to minimize the damage done to its links with the Gulf states and others by its apparent support for Assad’s bloody repression. Some form of national unity deal brokered by the UN—an arrangement that could be presented as a Syrian rather than an American solution—might serve all those ends.

For its part, the Obama Administration also has some strong incentives to push for a meaningful international agreement involving a transition government in Syria.  For one thing, such an agreement might help defuse U.S.-based criticism about American inaction in Syria. It would probably also  enhance the stability of Iraq and help avoid nightmarish scenarios of violent regional conflicts in a part of the world in which so much American blood and money has already been spent. Furthermore, an international agreement with Russia might just revive the almost defunct plan to ‘reset the button’ of Washington’s relationship with Moscow—a plan launched with much fanfare a couple of years ago.

It is, of course, sad to think that the tragedy unfolding in Syria was not enough to push the international community to a common position a long time ago. Nevertheless, even an agreement at this late stage could be a significant step forward.

Yet in spite of some encouraging signs over the past few days, doubts remain regarding the ability of Russia and the West to overcome their differences at the upcoming conference. Even though Russia’s ambassador to the EU declared on July 28 that “Russia, the EU and the U.S. agree on ‘the basics’ of the approach,” signals coming from Moscow remain ambivalent. For instance, Sergei Lavrov has continued to insist that Russia would not endorse an internationally-backed plan for a political transition that would require President Assad to surrender power: “We will not support and cannot support any meddling from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of the president of the country, Bashar al-Assad.” Should the other conference participants move in the direction of a solution that looks to Moscow like “meddling”, the Russians could easily decide to withdraw their support. And it may be difficult to avoid such perceptions, given not only the complexity of the Syrian situation but also President Putin’s well-known distrust of the U.S. It remains to be seen if that distrust can be transcended.

Of course, even if Russia and the West overcome their differences and an international agreement is reached on Syria, there is no guarantee that the agreement will actually be implemented. Many challenges and obstacles remain, not least the deep divisions within Syria, which would make it very difficult to put together a viable transitional government. Still, such an agreement would mark a step in the right direction, and a welcome departure from the sharp differences and disagreements that have so far characterized the international community’s approach to Syria.

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