Americans feel Syria turning into proxy war with Russia

Lack of trust between the Russians and the Americans is a fundamental obstacle to reaching an understanding that could resolve the Syrian conflict.

Lack of trust between the Russians and the Americans is a fundamental obstacle to reaching an understanding that could resolve the Syrian conflict.

Reuters
Prospects for improved Russia – US relations appear bleak, with international analysts expressing pessimism about the issue. They are urging leaders in Moscow and Washington to stay cautious in their bilateral dealings in Syria.

The conflict in Syria is stoking mistrust between Russia and the U.S. that will be difficult to overcome in the near future, participants at a special panel on Russia-U.S. relations organized in Moscow by the Valdai Club international discussion forum have concluded.

Former British Defence Minister Desmond Browne (2006-2008) and former British Ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne (2000-2004) joined Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and a prominent expert on Russia, in Moscow on September 30 to discuss why Russia-U.S. relations have dramatically deteriorated recently.

Legvold said the Syrian conflict is turning into a proxy war between Russia and the U.S. in the eyes of the American public.

Days after the discussion in Moscow, on October 3, the U.S. State Department said it had decided to terminate dialogue with Moscow on Syria, fulfilling the grim predictions of the Valdai Club discussion participants. Russia, in turn, responded (in Russian) by arguing that the Obama administration was either unable or unwilling to fulfil key conditions of continued cooperation with Moscow on Syria.

“…What’s happened in Syria is that mistrust has overwhelmed the chance to build trust. Now Syria will, instead of becoming a positive influence and a way to move forward in this current, what I call Cold War, now contribute to the deepening of the Cold War,” said Legvold.

A question of trust

Lack of trust between the Russians and the Americans is a fundamental obstacle to reaching any understanding that could resolve the protracted conflict, along with their inability to fully exert their influence on the conflicting parties in Syria, analysts opined.

Legvold said the senior staff in the Obama administration had concluded by 2015 that Moscow saw the U.S. as actively pursuing a strategy of regime change in various countries. Hence the U.S. and Russia developed an inherent sense of mistrust about each other’s intentions that manifested itself starkly in Ukraine and Syria.

Analysts opine that the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine are hotspots that could drag Moscow and Washington into an open conflict, should they fail to act with more caution.

“The first thing we need to do collectively is to [refrain] from actions that make the situation worse. Ukraine and Syria are particular hotspots. If the leaderships of East and West want better relations then they’ve got to start behaving with some restraint in those areas,” said former British Ambassador Lyne.

Browne, who was Britain’s Defence Minister when the Russia-Georgia conflict erupted, said the war in August 2008 was a “collective wake-up call” that both Russia and the West chose to ignore, laying the foundation for future conflicts.

“It did seem to me that unless we addressed this issue of trust and confidence, form some sort of a dialogue and a common perception of at least the dangers we were engaging with, then other things were likely to happen,” said Browne.

A way out?

Although the experts were largely pessimistic about the current state of relations between Russia and the U.S., they agreed that Moscow and Washington could still try to put relations back on track by focusing on the common challenges the two countries face.

“We can identify a number of issues on which we continue to have common interests,” said Lyne, pointing to the North Korean nuclear programme as an area of particular concern.

“Just as we were able to work together on Iran, we need to work together on [North Korea]. Then we need to start addressing issues that have driven us apart, which is going to be a slow process because it is not only about interests, it is about values,” added the former diplomat.

The pundits on the panel in Moscow opined that Russia and the United States can still revive their former bond if the leaders in Moscow and Washington do not further aggravate the current mistrust, which is similar to that which prevailed during the heights of the Cold War.

Washington’s decision to terminate bilateral dialogue with Moscow on Syria however, leaves little hope for now.

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