Syr­ian peace may hinge on Moscow’s game plan

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Moscow is in­creas­ingly emerg­ing as a cen­ter of diplo­macy on Syria’s 4-year-old civil war, with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion send­ing a key emis­sary to the Rus­sian cap­i­tal to dis­cuss the con­flict on Fri­day, fol­low­ing re­cent vis­its by high-level Saudi, Jor­da­nian and Ira­nian of­fi­cials — as well as key mem­bers of the Syr­ian po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion.

Af­ter co­or­di­nat­ing closely with Rus­sia on the achieve­ment of this sum­mer’s nu­clear ac­cord with Iran, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say they are seiz­ing on an “open­ing” to strate­gize with Moscow to­ward end­ing the war that has left more than 240,000 peo­ple dead and mil­lions dis­placed since 2011.

While State Depart­ment of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge there are still big ob­sta­cles pre­vent­ing se­ri­ous co­or­di­na­tion with Rus­sia — namely that Moscow has for years aligned with Iran on back­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and sharp dif­fer­ences over the stand­off in Ukraine — the ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pears hope­ful that it might be able to con­vince the Rus­sians to shift their pos­ture.

Hence the visit by U.S. Spe­cial En­voy for Syria Michael Rat­ney to Moscow on Fri­day — a trip that comes af­ter Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry dis­cussed Syria strat­egy dur­ing a se­ries of meet­ings with Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov and Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Adel al-Jubeir held ear­lier this month dur­ing vis­its to the Mid­dle East and Asia.

The goal, ac­cord­ing to a State Depart­ment state­ment, is to “work to­ward greater con­ver­gence of views among both for­eign gov­ern­ments and the Syr­i­ans them­selves on a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria.”

State Depart­ment spokesman John Kirby, mean­while, told re­porters that ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials “un­der­stand that the Rus­sians have a dif­fer­ent view in Syria than we do.”

“Frankly,” Mr. Kirby said Thurs­day, “their sup­port to the As­sad regime has been man­i­festly un­help­ful to the cri­sis in Syria and has only served to em­bolden As­sad to con­tinue the de­pri­va­tions in his own coun­try against his own peo­ple. So we ob­vi­ously have a dif­fer­ent view here.”

But U.S. of­fi­cials “hope that there is room for co­op­er­a­tion to­wards a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria,” Mr. Kirby said. “What that’s go­ing to look like, and how it’s go­ing to man­i­fest it­self, we just don’t know right now.

“These dis­cus­sions are just at their be­gin­ning, which is why it’s so im­por­tant that Mr. Rat­ney is go­ing,” he added. “We un­der­stand there’s a lot of work to do, but we think there’s an open­ing here for us to con­tinue to work with Rus­sia on a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in Syria.”

It’s not clear if the open­ing will lead to a new wave of in­ter­na­tional peace talks like those that brought to­gether of­fi­cials from sev­eral out­side pow­ers, as well as from Syria’s frac­tured op­po­si­tion move­ment in 2012 and 2014.

The talks, which came to be known as “Geneva I” and “Geneva II,” ul­ti­mately fell apart as a re­sult of in­fight­ing among the op­po­si­tion, as well as dis­agree­ments over whether Mr. As­sad’s ouster should be a pre­con­di­tion of any fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Mr. Kirby’s com­ments sug­gested the ad­min­is­tra­tion is be­gin­ning to em­brace the idea that Moscow will be a cen­tral player in any­thing re­lat­ing to Syria go­ing for­ward. And Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has en­gaged in an ac­tive round of diplo­macy in re­cent weeks to as­sert Moscow’s role in fash­ion­ing a so­lu­tion.

Rus­sia hosted a del­e­ga­tion of Syria’s main op­po­si­tion group, the Syr­ian Na­tional Coali­tion, in early Au­gust. And re­cent weeks saw high-level emis­saries visit Moscow from nearly all the re­gional pow­ers in­volved in the war — in­clud­ing Iran, Saudi Ara­bia and Jor­dan.

On his visit, King Ab­dul­lah of Jor­dan told Mr. Putin Rus­sia’s role is “vi­tal in bring­ing to­gether all the ri­val sides to a ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble to­wards a peace so­lu­tion.”

What’s un­clear is whether Rus­sia’s in­creased role will pro­duce what Washington and its al­lies say they are seek­ing — the ouster of Mr. As­sad in any peace deal.

When Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Mr. al-Jubeir vis­ited Moscow ear­lier this month, he was told by Mr. Lavrov it would be bet­ter to en­gage with the As­sad gov­ern­ment and the Syr­ian mil­i­tary in the on­go­ing fight against Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists in Syria.

Mr. al-Jubeir’s re­sponse was that the Saudis, like the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, be­lieve “As­sad is part of the prob­lem and not part of the so­lu­tion.”

But Rus­sia has lever­age, since it is in­creas­ingly seen as a go-to in­ter­locu­tor be­tween the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity and Iran — the As­sad regime’s other main backer, which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has long in­sisted has no place in ne­go­ti­a­tions to­ward peace in Syria.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

U.S. of­fi­cials say they aim to ex­ploit an “open­ing” to work with Moscow in end­ing Syria’s in­ternecine war that has left over 240,000 dead and dis­placed mil­lions.

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