The Cable

Top U.S. Diplomat: Political Solution to Syrian Civil War Now in Sight

A top State Department official said Tuesday that the chances of crafting a political transition in Syria were better than “at any time during this crisis,” a striking note of optimism given the unrelenting carnage of the country’s nearly five-year civil war.

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A top State Department official said Tuesday that the chances of crafting a political transition in Syria were better than “at any time during this crisis,” a striking note of optimism given the unrelenting carnage of the country’s nearly five-year civil war.

Speaking at Foreign Policy’s annual Transformational Trends forum in Washington, D.C., Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Russia’s military intervention to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad had “ironically” hastened progress toward a potential diplomatic solution to the conflict, which has killed some 250,000 people and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Blinken’s comments came just weeks after leaders from the United States, Russia, Britain, Iran, and Saudi Arabia met in Vienna to sign a statement in support of a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline for the start of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. The agreement does not yet have buy-in from the Syrian rebels or the Assad regime.

In explaining his optimism, Blinken argued that Moscow’s support to Assad, in the form of airstrikes, arms transfers, and financial assistance, has “increased Russia’s leverage” over the Syrian strongman whose departure will be necessary to end the conflict. “He owes them,” Blinken said.

He also noted that Russia’s intervention in Syria has trapped the Kremlin in a fight that it can’t sustain politically, financially, or strategically.

“Russia is perceived now with being in alliance with Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran — and thus against the interests of the vast majority of the Muslim world,” he said.

“The risk there is that its own community, 15 percent of Russia is comprised of Sunni Muslims, will be enraged, and other communities from Central Asia to the Balkans will take it out on Russia,” Blinken said.

This is not the first time a State Department official has gone on record with surprisingly optimistic assessments of the state of the Syrian peace talks. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said“We’re weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition for Syria, and I don’t think enough people necessarily notice that. But that’s the reality.”

Those comments prompted guffaws from critics who noted that any significant diplomatic accomplishment was at best months away, given the logistical challenges of agreeing to a cease-fire and holding elections, much less even forging an agreement between the fractured Syrian opposition.

In his remarks Tuesday, Blinken went on to tout the accomplishments of last month’s Syria summit in Vienna, which built momentum behind a cease-fire agreement in Syria, but left the most important problem of the crisis unsolved — the fate of Assad.

Still, Blinken noted that the Vienna talks marked the first time that Iran and Russia had ever agreed on the “need for a political transition in Syria.”

“That’s a first,” he said. “We now have, without exaggerating its potential, a greater possibility at achieving a political transition in Syria than we did just a few months ago and arguably at any time during this crisis.”

Photo credit: Chris Maddaloni

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