Syria: Who should Kerry be talking to?
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have given rise to hopes that Washington and Moscow might be ready to cooperate on several issues, including Syria.
But though they might be able to do so on other issues, it is doubtful that they will be able to cooperate effectively on Syria, even if they actually wanted to. This is because regional powers have more influence on events in Syria than either the United States is willing to admit, or Russia is able to exercise.
For about two years after the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime broke out in 2011, it appeared the rebels were slowly gaining the upper hand and the regime was bound to fall. But with steady support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah for the Assad regime, rivalry among not just its opponents but also the regional actors supporting them and Washington’s reluctance to support the opposition, it was not surprising that the Assad regime turned the situation around by early 2013.
The decision of US President Barack Obama to work with Moscow and Damascus on eliminating the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stocks and later to focus its attention on targeting the Islamic State (ISIS) both in Iraq and Syria, appeared to many Arabs and Turks as signs that Washington actually preferred the Assad regime over its Islamist opponents.
At present, however, the battle appears to have turned again. Instead of working at cross purposes, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — the principal supporters of the Syrian opposition — are working together. In addition, the opposition forces they support have been cooperating more closely against both the Assad regime and ISIS.
Further, the forces of the Assad regime and the Alawite minority that backs it are showing signs of exhaustion. The support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah that Damascus continues to receive has not been sufficient to reverse this trend. All this is happening when the United States is focusing its efforts more on containing ISIS and much less on supporting the non- ISIS Syrian opposition forces.
If there is to be a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria, a Russian-American agreement will have little impact if Iran on the one hand and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other continue to support their respective Syrian allies, which are fighting each other. And with Putin refusing to contemplate the Syrian opposition’s minimum condition of Assad stepping down as part of a settlement, the newly ascendant Syrian opposition and its external supporters have little incentive to negotiate with Moscow.
By contrast, a negotiated settlement between elements of the Assad regime (minus Assad) and elements of the opposition as well as between Iran on the one hand and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other could resolve the Syrian conflict — except for the problem of ISIS. Still, if a settlement among these other parties could be achieved, then they and their external supporters would be able to concentrate their joint efforts on defeating ISIS in Syria.
But achieving any such agreement will be extraordinarily difficult. The parties inside Syria as well as their regional allies are highly unlikely to be able to do this on their own. A major American diplomatic effort will be needed.
There is no guarantee, of course, that such an effort would succeed, as decades of failed American efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians have shown.
But with Iranian-American relations poised to improve, if a nuclear agreement is reached, and with Obama having reportedly succeeded in reassuring the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to some extent about the deal as well as a US commitment to their security, now may be a propitious moment for a US diplomatic effort aimed at achieving a settlement of the Syrian conflict.
And if the United States could help craft a peace deal among the most important (non-ISIS) actors inside Syria as well as in the region Russia would have little choice but to accept it.
Some might argue that Putin would oppose any Syrian settlement made without Russian input and so would act as a spoiler to prevent it. But if the choice for Moscow is one between a settlement in which it and some of its allies have a stake or the continuation of the conflict that could lead to the downfall of Assad and the collapse of Russian influence in Syria, even an American-sponsored settlement would be better for Moscow.
Of course, Moscow could ramp up its involvement in Syria to keep Assad in power. But if Tehran becomes willing to reach a settlement and with Russia increasingly consumed by affairs in Ukraine and Europe even if it does not, Putin will find it extremely difficult and costly to protect Assad. And as Putin is undoubtedly aware, it is much easier to undermine a weak government allied to an adversary (as he is doing in Ukraine) than to protect a weak ally (such as Assad) from being undermined by not just one, but several adversaries.
For the United States to have any hope of resolving this conflict, Kerry’s time would be far better spent in hammering out an agreement between the regional powers that matter most in it (Iran on the one hand and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the other) than in trying to reach an agreement with Moscow since it is not in as strong a position to affect the outcome in Syria.