Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow this week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.)
It’s an open question whether the new US-Russian initiative to convene a peace conference over Syria can work or not. But it’s the right move at the right time. It was welcomed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the beleaguered United Nations representative on Syria, who’s hinted that he might resign over the diplomatic impasse thus far. “This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” said Brahimi.
The peace conference would be based on a 2012 joint resolution issued by the United States, Russia and others.
The bombs-away crowd isn’t happy. Elliot Abrams, the neoconservative hardliner who worked for George W. Bush and then somehow found his way into the Council on Foreign Relations, issued a fiery blast at President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, who met in Moscow this week with President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov:
Faced with this challenge what did Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry do? They asked Putin for help. This is astonishing in itself, for the last four years offer proof that Putin is an enemy of the United States and seeks to weaken us, not to help us. The notion that we have common interests in Syria beggars belief.
The picture of an American secretary of state hanging around for three hours, desperate to see Putin and seek his help, is pathetic–and suggests a profound misjudgment of Putin (who has nothing but contempt for weakness) and of Russian policy.
According to The New York Times, the “the aim would be to push the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition to attend.” The paper added:
Russia and the United States announced on Tuesday that they would seek to convene an international conference within weeks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, jointly intensifying their diplomatic pressure on the combatants to peacefully settle a conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives and left millions displaced and desperate.
Russia is, it seems, increasingly unhappy with the turn of events in Syria, where its ally, the government of Bashar al-Assad, is using heavy weapons against a lesser-armed, civilian armed resistance. It’s an important breakthrough for the United States and Russia to demand that both the government and the rebels attend a conference, because if either side refuses to do so it will reflect badly on the patron of the side that won’t attend. For Russia, were Assad or his representatives to refuse to negotiate, it might mean that Russia would be forced to abandon them; if the rebels refuse to attend, the United States would be hard pressed to continue to support them.
The rebels ought to be careful. Already, some of them are expressing unhappiness and skepticism about the conference, since many of them refuse to talk to Assad and they don’t want to see Assad remain in power, either temporarily—in a transitional period—or permanently.
So far, despite intense political pressure from neoconservatives and the right, including John McCain et al., and from Israel—which bombed the Syrian capital over the weekend—Obama has resisted getting more directly involved. However, there’s little doubt that the United States is using the possibility of stepped-up American involvement, including arming the rebels directly, in order to convince Russia to co-sponsor a last-ditch conference. Russia, though, has reasons of its own to seek some sort of stability in Syria, since the last thing it wants is a takeover in Damascus by ultra-militant, Al Qaeda-led rebels who might form alliances with Muslim extremists in Russia.
The neocons are apoplectic over the fact that Obama, having said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” and a “red line,” still hasn’t decided to bomb Syria. Obama is being properly cautious, and he’s backed by public opinion polls that show that Americans don’t want to get involved in yet another Middle East war.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on how Israel’s bombing of Syria has invited Obama to take sides in a growing region-wide conflict.