MORE of the pieces seem to be falling in place for the US and Russia in trying to find common ground on Syria. The diplomatic pitch led by US Secretary of State John Kerry is enforced by fears in both capitals about the increased radicalization of the conflict and possible regional spillover if no political settlement is achieved in the near future.
By process of elimination and after rejecting both arming the Syrian opposition and an outside military intervention, the Obama administration has set its sails towards a political settlement in Syria with the help of Russia. Kerry promoted this direction last Wednesday, voicing hope that “there may be an equation where the Russians and the United States could, in fact, find more common ground” on Syria. His approach is supported by US President Barack Obama, and Vice President Joseph Biden who recently met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Munich, as well as National Security advisor Tom Donilon who will be heading to Moscow this month.
Politically, the effort derives its momentum from increasing concerns over the radicalization of the conflict. There is also a realization in Russia and the US, that after two years of fighting and 70,000 dead, neither side can win militarily, and the possible consequence might be the collapse of the Syrian state. The US designation of the rebel group Jabhat Al-Nusra on the terrorism list last December spoke volumes about how concerned Washington is about the militarization of the conflict and Al-Qaeda exploiting the unrest.
Those fears echo an early Russian worry of rising Islamic militancy in Syria as an alternative to the Assad regime, whom Moscow has been supporting since the beginning of the uprising.
However, as rebels gain ground especially in Northern Syria, taking control of a dam and an airbase this week, there is a greater sense of urgency for Russia to seek a political settlement. Syria is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East with investments estimated at 19.4 billion dollars. Syria also hosts Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union in the city of Tartus.
The fear of a regional spillover as well as the risk of Assad using or transporting Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons is a common US-Russian concern. Lavrov called any use of those weapons “political suicide”, and the recent reported Israeli raid on a research center near Damascus exposes the volatility of the situation. King Abdullah of Jordan has also expressed similar concerns, and is expected to visit Moscow in the coming weeks.
While Moscow and Washington largely agree on the end terms of the conflict, their differences remain on the roadmap to achieve these goals. The US has insisted on the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his “clique” overseeing the crackdown as part of any transition, whereas Russia has indicated that “only the Syrian people can decide Assad’s fate.”
Such a move is not surprising from Moscow and might have more to do with the post-Assad military and intelligence structure than with Assad himself. Russia’s arms contracts exceed 4 billion dollars in Syria, and Moscow maintains good relations with the heads of security and intelligence including director of National Security Ali Mamlouk and the head of Syrian air force Jamil Hassan. Both Mamlouk and Hassan qualify in the clique that Washington would like to see departing with Assad, as well as Assad’s brother, Maher, his first cousin and head of General security in Damascus Hafez Makhlouf, and the deputy director of national security Abdul Fatah Qudssiye among others.
Against this background emerges the Moaz Khatib plan. The head of the Syrian National Coalition — the major opposition group — has come out in favor of direct talks with the Assad regime about the transition period, thus eliminating Assad’s departure as a precondition for such talks. His formula, which started as a Facebook post, has attracted wide international support and scored him meetings with Biden, and both Iranian and Russian representatives. Khatib is also expected to visit Moscow at end of this month.
The success of the Khatib initiative will ultimately launch negotiations under an international umbrella and increase the prospects of a US-Russian agreement behind a political settlement. Such an outcome might not be enough to end the fighting or force Assad to change his calculations, but it remains a prerequisite to achieving any settlement or producing an international consensus.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper. Follow her on Twitter @Joyce_Karam.