After a relative lull, a recent flurry of news suggests that the endgame in Syria is approaching.
Some news has been positive. US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed optimism after talks with Russian leaders, and an international conference aimed at settling the conflict is in the works. US President Barack Obama has stressed the importance of cooperation with Moscow. Indeed, the West and Russia have adopted the same slogan: We will not allow Syria to collapse. All the parties agree on the goal, but Russia and the West have different views on how to achieve it, and prefer not to say anything on the record. It is not yet clear who will take part in the conference. For now it is just an idea, but the desire to make it happen is clearly genuine.
There has also been bad news, including numerous leaks to media regarding Russia’s intention to supply Syria with S-300 air defense systems (some media have reported the weapons have already been delivered). Nothing has been confirmed officially, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have discussed this issue while in Moscow this week, apparently without success. Israel has launched air strikes in Syrian territory, and risks becoming entangled in the conflict. There is also the bizarre matter of chemical weapons – have they been used, and if so by which side? President Obama had said that the use of weapons of mass destruction would represent a “red line” for the United States. However, Washington is clearly reluctant to act on this threat, and the president appears to be taking an idiosyncratic approach to the Middle East, infuriating his many political opponents.
Nevertheless, it’s a critical moment, with advocates and opponents of a negotiated settlement in Syria at each other’s throats. The civil war has reached a stalemate, and without foreign intervention there is simply no end in sight. America’s doubts about the Syrian opposition have only grown as the war has progressed. The very people the United States targets in its counter-terrorist operation are now gaining the upper hand in the opposition. Supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad even de facto, much less de jure, is a political impossibility. And it would be risky to invade Syria on the side of the rebels, all the more so since Russia and China will surely use their veto in the Security Council to deny the intervening forces UN cover. Nobody expects post-Assad Syria to be a peaceful country.
The proposed international conference may be the last chance, and still it seems like a long shot.
Even if the United States, Britain, France, Russia and other outside players agree on the future configuration of Syria at the conference, there is no guarantee that the government or the rebels will quietly accept the decision. Moscow does not control Damascus and Washington is not in charge of the Syrian opposition. Indeed, the countries with the greatest sway in Syria – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – remain silent. They have different agendas to the great powers.
On the issue of Syria, America and Russia are divided by a single, albeit fundamental, disagreement. Washington insists that Assad must step down before negotiations can begin; Moscow does not. The Russian position is not an expression of support for the Syrian president himself, but an allergic reaction to any actions that have so much as a whiff of regime change about them. In other words, it won’t be a tragedy for Russia if Assad steps down as the result of a negotiated political settlement. But he should not step down before that, and certainly not at the behest of foreign powers.
If the proposed conference ends in failure, which, unfortunately, is quite possible, it would put the major powers in a difficult position. Washington and European capitals will face a sharp increase in pressure from those who favor arming the rebels. The Western public, fuelled by heartbreaking descriptions of atrocities (regardless of their authenticity), will not tolerate many more months of civil war. An invasion of Syria is highly unlikely, but an end to the embargo on arms supplies to the rebels is more than likely, along with the delegitimization of Assad. Russia will have to increase support for Damascus and provide more weapons to maintain the balance. In this case, a military convoy carrying S-300 systems will certainly be heading for the Syrian coast. The rift between the major powers will grow. But Syria’s prospects will not improve. The country’s fragmentation will be all but inevitable.
Throughout the Syrian conflict, Russian diplomats have repeatedly invoked the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. During the talks, the leaders of the opposing sides were locked on an American military base and were not allowed to leave it until they agreed on the political configuration of the new Bosnia. They were subjected to powerful pressure, but nobody was excluded from the process. Perhaps a similar model could work in Syria. History does not repeat itself, but there are patterns. In the case of Syria, the process should include representatives of Assad (or Assad himself – after all, Milosevic was involved in Bosnia negotiations), Iran and other key players.
Since the conflict in Syria began two years ago, Moscow has essentially stuck to its initial position. But now it is also interested in achieving something. Its principled position will only seem justified if it leads to a political settlement in Syria. In that case, one could argue that Russia’s prolonged efforts to uphold its principles and interests were successful. If the Syrian conflict ends in disaster – with or without direct military intervention – Moscow could try to distance itself from the situation, but its painstaking work over the past two years will have been for nothing and its reputation as the ally of doomed regimes will only grow more entrenched.