Obama, Putin need steady nerves & stout hearts in Syria

The best thing about the ninety-minute meeting between the US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in New York on Monday was that they agreed there was not going to be any recourse to rhetoric. Putin, accordingly, handled the media himself and the White House refrained from releasing the customary readout.

Obama-Putin

A senior US official said the talks were “productive” and he calmed down the American media, explaining “this was not a situation where either one of them [Obama or Putin] was seeking to score points”. Putin’s interaction with the Russian media conveyed the impression that he too was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had previously met US Secretary of State John Kerry and handed over to him a ‘flow chart’ on the implementation of the Minsk agreements on Ukraine. Indeed, Putin also used an interview with Charlie Rose at CBS to speak without diplomatese on the Kremlin thinking regarding Syria and Ukraine.

In remarks to Russian media, Putin described his talks with Obama as “very useful and what is particularly pleasant, it was very sincere”.  He struck a positive tone, saying the American side explained their position “quite clearly” and “indeed, surprising as it may seem, we have many coinciding points and opinions”.

Putin acknowledged the differences, but refused to be drawn into them – except on the central issue that the air strikes in Syria by the US-led coalition are incompatible with international law.

Clearly, Russia cannot identify with the US-led coalition of the willing, but is open to have ‘military-to-military’ discussions as well as ‘coordination’ at the operational level. Russia intends to have its own ‘partners’, “primarily” comprising regional countries but would include “all who are interested in combating the terrorist threat… as many countries as possible together”.

Putin singled out Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. Although Moscow respects Israel’s interests and concerns, there are aspects of the Israeli conduct that cause disquiet – specifically, Israeli air strikes on Syrian territory – which will have to be gone into by “experts” but not in any bilateral structure with Israel.

To be sure, Putin gave Obama a candid account of the Russian intentions in Syria. On the military side, he told the media, “We are considering what we could do additionally to support those who are on the ground, as it were, resisting and fighting terrorists… this is primarily the Syrian army and Kurdish resistance units… We are considering what kind of additional support we could give to the Syrian army”.

However, the bottom line is that Russia will not undertake any combat missions – “No land operations or participation of Russian army has ever been considered or ever could be”.

A senior US official admitted that the Obama administration does not view the Russian build-up in Syria as “necessarily destructive to a positive outcome in Syria” but qualified that this view will ultimately depend on Russia’s actions going forward. The US can live with the Russians using their military power to fight the IS, but will be negative if Moscow “continues to strengthen” Assad.

But the official added that the two presidents agreed that their militaries should communicate in order to “deconflicate” (avoid any mishaps involving them).

In sum, the big outcome of the meeting in New York is that the US and Russia engaged each other constructively. The contacts never stopped, but they were often talking past each other. A working relationship is developing now on Syria.

As a hardcore realist, Putin would know that the Syrian kaleidoscope has shifted through the past 2- to 3-year period and the power calculus in Damascus ought to reflect it. He disclosed that he and Obama “discussed various aspects of a settlement in Syria in general”.

Obama could not have agreed with the line of Russian thinking on strengthening “al-Assad’s army” – at least, not yet openly. But an increasingly wider audience in the West has learnt to live with that thought. Putin simply drew satisfaction for the moment that despite differences, “we have agreed to work together”.

However, a senior US official maintained separately that the two sides fundamentally disagreed on the role that President Bashar al-Assad will play in resolving the civil conflict in Syria. The official explained that while Moscow sees Assad as a bulwark against the extremists, the Americans see him as continuing to fan the flames of a sectarian conflict in Syria.

Of course, Putin insists that the future of al-Assad is not for outsiders to propose but is the exclusive business of Syrian citizens. The principle is unquestionable.  The US faces an acute dilemma here insofar as in a democratic election, Assad’s re-election as president still remains a strong possibility, since secular-minded Syrians cutting across religious sects or ethnic divides would still see him as the best bet against an extremist takeover.

The likelihood of any figure in the mythical ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition outmatching Assad in popularity seems remote. Put differently, the decade-old US campaign to change the regime in Syria still remains ‘unfinished business’ – that is, unless Washington wilfully imposes a democratic process on Syria tailor-made to produce a particular outcome in the election.

On the other hand, Moscow is confident about the sustainability of its position on the Assad question. Putin openly pledges that “alongside support to the official [Syrian] authorities in their struggle against terrorism, we would insist on political reform and a political process to be conducted at the same time”. Such confidence, ironically, stems from the knowledge that Assad himself feels comfortable with the idea of Syria taking to the road of reform.

The discussions relating to Syria and the Islamic State apparently marginalized the Ukraine crisis, but tensions are not so acute on that front lately. Putin hinted that the US is now putting its weight behind the Normandy Format (comprising the leaderships of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine), allowing it to spearhead the conflict resolution in Ukraine. A Normandy Format summit meeting is due to take place Friday in Paris.

Overall, Putin emphasized Moscow’s keenness to have lines open to the Obama administration at all levels and he underscored that the Russian stance on Syria should not lend itself to interpretation as an attempt to step into the vacuum of American leadership. As he put it, “challenging American leadership is not at stake”.

However, in the ultimate analysis, this is also a battle of wits and it all depends on who has the steadier nerve and the stouter heart. On Wednesday, the upper house of the Russian parliament approved the Kremlin’s request for use of the country’s armed forces abroad.

Putin’s key aide Sergei Ivanov has been quoted as saying in Moscow,

  • We’re talking exclusively about operations of Russia’s Air Force… the use of armed forces on the ground theater of military operations is excluded. The military goal of the operations is exclusively air support of the Syrian government forces in their fight against the Islamic State.

Ivanov said Moscow is notifying ‘foreign partners’ via the diplomatic channel as well as the mil-to-mil channels regarding the Russian parliament’s decision. He explained,

  • First and, probably, the most important, we are talking about Syria alone, and we are not talking about reaching some foreign policy goals… we are talking about Russia’s national interests alone. In regard to the timeline, the Russian Air Force operation… has a definite time period, but what the time period is… I cannot say right now for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, it must be noted that Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria recently created a ‘center’ in Baghdad to coordinate the fight against the IS. The center will share reconnaissance on the number of IS militants, their weapons, and their movements and will be headed by Russian, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian officers on a three-month rotational basis. The Pentagon has been taken by surprise.

All in all, to put it mildly, the military developments on the ground are accelerating and fast acquiring a momentum and dynamics of their own. Diplomacy is barely keeping pace with the changing ground realities. The good thing is that Obama and Putin could have a reality check, if they wish to, in about seven weeks from their New York meeting when they come across each other in Antalya in the Turkish Riviera for the G20 summit on November 15-16.

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