It felt for a moment like the old days.
In a bold display of big-power diplomacy reminiscent of the waning years of the Cold War, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats met in Moscow this week to announce plans for ending a festering regional dispute in Syria that has divided the world.
After two years of diplomatic deadlock, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to convene an international conference to press for a political transition in Syria. Speaking at a joint press conference in Moscow with Lavrov at his side, Kerry affirmed the two governments’ shared commitment to "a negotiated settlement as the essential means of ending the bloodshed, addressing humanitarian disaster in Syria, and addressing the problem of the security of chemical weapons and forestalling further regional instability."
The proposed conference — which aims to drag representatives from Syrian government and the insurgency together — offers more than a referendum on the prospects for peace in Syria. It marks a major test of whether two major powers can still shape events in a region where they are competing for influence with a new generation of players, including jihadist militants with no loyalty to Moscow or Washington; a calculating regime desperately clinging for control; and a growing roster of allies and enemies, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran, that appear committed to resolving the conflict through the use of force. Even Britain and France — two stalwart American allies who officially support the U.S. and Russian mediation — have been ramping up pressure within Europe for greater outside military support for the Syrian rebels.
The agreement was applauded at the United Nations, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.N.-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, fear a military victory by the Syrian opposition will plunge the region into greater sectarian violence. Brahimi, like his predecessor Kofi Annan, have viewed the big powers — particularly the permanent five (P-5) members of the Security Council — led by the United States and Russia — as the components in forging a peace alliance in the Security Council to pressure the parties to stop fighting.
"This is welcome; this is good news," Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary general, told reporters today. Eliasson also noted that Brahimi, who had informed U.N. diplomats that he would resign, had agreed to a request by Ban stay on to support the U.S.-Russian initiative. We "now hope that all partners will seize this opportunity and really contribute to a political settlement."
But the U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative was received with skepticism from U.N.-based diplomats and observers, who say the former Cold War powers no longer have the influence they once had to call the shots. "Lakhdar Brahimi is of the old school; he is always saying, like, ‘Mr. Annan, I can’t act if the P-5 isn’t united,’" said one senior European diplomat. "It’s not convincing. Even if the P-5 were united I don’t see what difference it would make. The people are fighting, their survival is at stake."
Some observers see the proposed Syria conference as delaying tactic, a new diplomatic initiative aimed as much at lessening international pressure for U.S. military intervention in Syria than on a workable vehicle for ending the war. "I think there is a real sense that this is a mechanism for the United States and the Russians to buy time, and so there is going to be a huge amount of skepticism going into this conference," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. "I think the conference alienates the Saudis and Qataris, and disappoints the British and French — who have been driving hard for a more aggressive line and using the chemical weapons [claims] to strengthen their case."
Gowan said the U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia will apply "marginal pressure" on President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate a political settlement — "though I think Assad will remain relatively confident the Russians won’t throw him to the wolves." But Gowan added that Washington’s diplomatic gambit may ultimately undercut what little "U.S. prestige" still exists among the rebels.
Salman Shaikh., the director of the Brookings Doha Center, an outpost of the Washington-based think-tank, which receives funding from Qatar, said there remain fundamental differences between the United States and Russia that could imperil an agreement. For instance, neither side has settled the question of what role President Assad would play in Syria during a political transition. The rebels have so far refused any talks about a political transition that did not foresee Assad’s removal from power. Kerry told reporters in Jordan today that "in our judgment, President Assad will not be a component" of a transitional government. But it remains unclear whether Russia agrees with that position, or whether Assad would retain his title during a political transition.
"Russia and the U.S. still seem to be apart on agreeing on Assad’s future," said Shaikh. "There is muddle and differing interpretations on the framing of this conference, reflecting earlier disagreements on the interpretation of the Geneva Agreement of last year. Until these are agreed, [Moscow and Washington] will not be able shape a viable political solution."
"Furthermore," Shaikh added. "I doubt that the U.S. will succeed in getting the ‘official opposition,’ the Syrian National Council, to the negotiating table if any political solution leaves open the possibility of Assad remaining in power."
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