Europe nudges US, Russia to walk the talk on Syria

(From Indian Punchline)

The remarks to the media by the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry following their meeting in London on Saturday conveyed the sense of an overall easing of tensions between the West and Russia. This cannot but have ‘collateral’ effect on the search for solution to the Syrian conflict.

The positive trend will take time to get faithfully reflected in the ‘East-West’ rhetoric, since injured pride needs to be overcome on both sides. But the trend as such is noticeable in the remarks by Hammond and Kerry. In a refreshing turn to the ‘East-West’ discourse, Ukraine stands practically ‘delisted’ as a theatre of conflict or confrontation between the West and Russia. Neither Hammond nor Kerry used harsh language to criticize Russia.

In fact, both avoided making any critical remarks about Russia. Neither touched on the allegations regarding Russian presence on the ground in Donbass or brought up Crimea and the western sanctions. On the other hand, Kerry made it clear to Kiev that the Minsk agreement is the only game in town and urged everyone to get cracking on the full implementation of the accord. He even commended Russia’s moderating influence on the separatists in the Donbass. Indeed, Kerry endorsed the Normandy Format and he envisaged that “the full implementation of Minsk is the way to resolve the tensions that have existed between Russia and the West”.

To be sure, the easing of tensions over Ukraine could rub on the Syrian conflict. Here, Kerry made some extremely significant remarks hinting at a flexible, pragmatic US approach stressing conflict resolution rather than regime change in Syria, and spoke of Russia (and Iran) as prospective partner in the search for solution. The following remarks made by Kerry merit special attention:

  • I think the last year and a half we have said that Assad has to go. But how long, what the modality is, that’s a decision that has to be made in the context of the Geneva process and negotiations. We’ve said for some period of time that it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever. There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved. And I don’t have the answer as to some specific timeframe… Obviously, in the end, it is up to the people of Syria to decide.
  • But we need to get to the negotiation. That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and any – Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring about that.
  • We’re prepared to negotiate… And we’ve made it very clear we’ve been open. We’ve made it very clear that we’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time. We’re open.

Evidently, Washington is not in a confrontational mode vis-à-vis the Russian build-up in Syria. There could have been misgivings regarding Russian intentions (since the Russian build-up took everyone by surprise), and “serious questions” would have arisen as regards the “presence of aircraft with air-to-air combat capacity as well as air-to-surface-surface-to-air missiles”. But, Kerry pointed out, the military talks with Moscow are intended to address them so that “we immediately engage in an effort to de-conflict so there’s no potential of a mistake or of an accident of some kind that produces a greater potential of conflict”.

Interestingly, a day later, on Sunday at a joint press conference in Berlin, where Kerry proceeded, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir said, “I strongly welcome the fact — and we’ve had reports here in Germany — about the growing Russian military engagement of Russia in the region”.

As regards the Kremlin’s decision to roll up the sleeves and join the fight against the Islamic State, the US (and the European allies) will only welcome it. Equally, Kerry didn’t repeat the initial US contention that the Russian military engagement doubles down on the Syrian regime. Washington doesn’t visualize Russia exploiting the Syrian conflict to establish a strategic presence on the ground.

Of course, the US is no longer makes it an upfront condition that Assad has to leave office; it doesn’t even stipulate a timeline; and, it admits that in the ultimate analysis, a precondition becomes untenable, because the final arbiters are the Syrian people. In fact, in Berlin, Kerry repeated what he had said the day before in London:

  • We have been consistently saying that… there is a process of transition. Now, that has to eb defined through negotiation. Nobody knows what the answer to that is… But most people have accepted that to get somewhere it’s not going to happen on day one or week one; there’s got to be some period of time. I don’t know what it is, but it has to be negotiated… So the key here is getting to this negotiation with a reality check on what is really possible.

Without doubt, this is a defining moment. Notwithstanding the immense pressure from detractors and critics within the US (and abroad in Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, et al) to shift gear to a hyperactive interventionist role in Syria, President Obama has preferred the diplomatic track.

This primarily emanates out of the ground reality that the decade-old US strategy to force a regime change in Syria has reached a dead end. Besides, the regional scenario has also changed phenomenally. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two countries that did all they could to destabilize Syria, are marooned in their own existential problems — and Qatar too has rolled back its regional ambitions built around the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring. In a dramatic shift, Egypt has actually swung to the Russian side and would see Assad as a bulwark against radical Islamist groups.

Above all, the US’ European allies have lost faith, caught up in a protracted struggle to cope with the refugee flow and agonizing over the spectre of the IS. The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of their retreat from the US’ regime change agenda in Syria should be audible in Washington. The debris of the conflict has reached Europe and although the US remains safe and untouched, it cannot wash off its hands off the political and moral responsibility for the horrific tragedy that is unfolding.

Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict itself has transformed. The Islamic State is today the real beneficiary of the regime change agenda pursued by the US and its regional allies. The ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition has become the butt of jokes. Which means that what is shaping up is a confrontation between the Syrian government forces and the IS. With air strikes against the IS not having much effect, Washington should show the practical wisdom to utilize whatever capabilities available on the ground.

What lies ahead? Kerry’s weekend visits to London and Berlin to consult key allies have prepared the ground for some intense discussions involving the various protagonists — Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, in particular — that can be expected to take place through the coming week in New York where the world leaders are gathering for the UN General Assembly session.

The manner in which the West has swiftly welcomed Russia’s military intervention in Syria underscores that a new chapter is beginning in their mutual relationship. This augurs well for conflict resolution in Syria. The bottom line is that the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership demands a quick solution to the Syrian conflict, which is threatening European security. In an extraordinary remark, Steinmeir actually urged all concerned — including the US — to “put aside national interests for the time being” and to rise to the occasion. (Transcript is here.)

Categories: AT Top Writers, M.K. Bhadrakumar, Middle East

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