Prospects of Russia-US reconciliation on Syria

Drawing by Alexei Yorsh

Drawing by Alexei Yorsh

As the 21-month Syrian conflict continues to bring about death and destruction in the Arab country, there is hope that Russia and the US will come to an agreeable position to address the crisis.

Recent meetings between the foreign ministers and diplomats of Russia and the US suggest that it may not be illogical to think that the two countries can find common ground in Syria. As the mediator of the UN and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi told the press, after meeting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, and US Undersecretary of State, William Burns in Geneva on last week, “The meeting was constructive and held in a spirit of co-operation … It explored avenues to move forward a peaceful process and mobilise greater international action in favour of a political solution to the Syrian crisis.” The coming days will likely witness hectic parley between Russian and the US officials towards evolving a common framework to resolve the crisis.

There are many determinants of the crisis on which both the countries have expressed no disagreement. Both the countries supported the idea of a transitional government as mooted in Geneva in June 2012, proposed by the former UN envoy and UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Both the countries agree that violence must end, and a ceasefire should be declared between warring factions towards a political solution of the conflict. Also, both the countries have strongly opposed any move by the Assad regime to use chemical weapons against the rebels.

During the human rights conference in Dublin on December 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met each other along with Lakhdar Brahimi to deliberate on the crisis. At the end of the meeting, Brahimi told the reporters that “we have agreed that the situation is bad and we have agreed that we must continue to work together to see how we can find creative ways of bringing this problem under control and hopefully starting to solve it… I think we will discuss that and many other aspects of what is needed to end the violence.”

One of the major impediments against reconciliation is the divergent position of Russia and the US on the fate of Bashar Al Assad, the current ruler of Syria. While the US insists that any transitional framework must exclude Assad, Russia argues that the fate of Assad must be decided by the Syrian people. While exclusion of Assad from power is a precondition for the US, and which also hopes Russia to persuade Assad to relinquish power, for Russia, “All decisions to reform the political system of Syria should be made by Syrians themselves without any foreign intervention and attempts to impose ready-made recipes on them.”

Earlier Russia and China have vetoed plans in the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria. The ceasefire plan as advocated by Kofi Annan, and his successor Brahimi, stipulates the end of violence, presence of United Nations observers in the conflict zone, and formation of a transitional government, representing members from both the pro-Assad regime and the opposition with both factions having veto on any disagreeable candidate.

The so called Arab Spring that engulfed the Arab world seems to have reached a crescendo in Syria, where the rebellion since March 2011 has led to loss of about 40,000 lives and loss of worth of billions of dollars in terms of infrastructure and livelihood. Syria can be a case in post-cold war globalised world in which protests, initially peaceful, took a violent turn with passage of time. The Assad regime has ruled the country for about 40 years facing occasional revolts, which were suppressed ruthlessly. For instance, a revolt against Hafeez Al Assad, the father of Bashar Assad, was suppressed brutally in 1980s. It may be a genuine concern that regimes in Arab world should give way to popular rule, and people should elect popular leaders. The point is how to achieve such a goal. Bashar Al Assad needs to give way to popular democracy, and that can be achieved through political means. So far the Syrian case has been a disaster with thousands of loss of lives, hundreds of thousands crossing borders to neighbouring countries and becoming refugees.

Russia and China have strongly opposed any external intervention in Syria as was the case of Libya. The main point of difference is about the role of Assad. As newspaper reports suggest Russia will not be against prospects of Assad giving up power voluntarily. A newspaper report suggested that Russia has turned the onus of this responsibility to external powers, seeking military intervention, to persuade Assad to step down. Any armed intervention will certainly raise the cost of peace disproportionately.

Any manipulation of fears that Assad may use chemical weapons and use it as an alibi for armed intervention will bode well for none of the parties involved in the conflict. It may eventually decimate the regime, but it will also turn the Arab world into a battle field with catastrophic costs for the Arab people and the neighbours with spillover effects. The US, which is still undergoing financial crisis, may find it difficult to sustain its prowess if it involves in the war as in Iraq in 2003.

It is now common news that Al Qaeda supported rebel groups have been taking active parts in fighting Assad’s forces. A peace proposal must take this factor into account. The US government has recognised this radicalisation of rebels, and reportedly declared one of the rebel groups Al Nusra as a terrorist group. As the news reveal, the US has also recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the popular representative of Syria. But this recognition may not help resolve the crisis, as the other stakeholders in the conflict may embolden their rigid positions. The coming few weeks will be very crucial for Syria and Assad regime.

As Brahimi reiterated in Geneva last week there is still scope for reconciliation between Russia and the US towards a political solution of the crisis. To quote him, “a political process to end the crisis in Syria was necessary and still possible.”

Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is an Indian commentator. His areas of interests include India-Russia relations, conflict and peace, and strategic aspects of Eurasian politics.

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