Experts Doubt U.S.-Russia Common Ground on Syria

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Washington has cozied up to Moscow in search of a political solution in war-torn Syria, but experts aren't sold that there's much common ground between the two.

Amid pressure from a hefty casualty toll and the likely use of chemical weapons by Damascus, the U.S. administration has relaunched its diplomatic efforts with Russia, the powerful protector of President Bashar Assad.

The bloody conflict, now in its third year, has claimed between 70,000 and 100,000 lives, according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and threatens to spill over into the entire region.

With that as a backdrop, the top U.S. diplomat met Tuesday in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The outcome? After months of deep divides, a joint push for peace in Syria and an agreement to hold an international conference on the conflict.

This gathering, which could take place in Geneva in late May, would build upon the Geneva Communique agreed by world powers on June 30, 2012.

Never implemented, it set out a path toward a transitional government in Syria without ever spelling out al-Assad's fate.

Washington, in contrast to Moscow, has long insisted that Assad must go. But on Friday, Lavrov confirmed that Russia was continuing to deliver military hardware to the Assad regime in defiance of calls for a freeze.

The United States appeared to slightly nuance its position when Kerry suggested in Moscow that Washington no longer considered Assad's departure a prerequisite to establish a transitional authority.

In Rome, Kerry went on to reaffirm that Assad must go, but without saying when.

"The change is that both we and the Russians are going to work very hard to get both of these sides to the table and implement this plan," deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday.

But experts are skeptical.

Stephen Sestanovich, an expert in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said this week's agreement on a peace conference "moves the Geneva formula one step further, but what is one step beyond complete meaninglessness?"

"The real issue is whether the Russians are prepared to tell Assad and his supporters that the jig is really up for their regime," he added.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said he was not convinced that the different players' positions had changed "that much."

"There is some verbal acrobatics as I would call it that are coming out of the White House and the State Department," he said.

But Shaikh stressed that "the situation on the ground will continue to shape events" rather than diplomatic efforts.

President Barack Obama said that there were no "easy answers" on Syria, two weeks after his administration first cited the Syrian regime's possible use of chemical weapons against its own people.

While calling such a move a "game changer," he has stressed there was insufficient proof to determine whether a "red line" had indeed been crossed.

He has also said that before acting, Washington must first establish exactly who had used chemical weapons and when, in an apparent reference to the flawed intelligence that led America into war with Iraq.

The Obama administration is haunted by a precedent set in 2003, when former president George W. Bush launched the the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

While pushing Russia to withdraw its support for Damascus, Washington fears the consequences for Syria and the region of a brutal fall of Assad's regime, already manifested by the entrance of Israel and Hizbullah in the conflict.

"The one lesson we learned from Iraq and the last administration is... How can I say it? In managing the affairs in Iraq, they destroyed every institution. There was no structure left. There wasn't even a Department of Public Works," Vice President Joe Biden told Rolling Stone magazine.

"And we know we can fix that, if we're willing to spend a trillion dollars and 160,000 troops and 6,000 dead, but that we cannot do," he added, in reference to the U.S. troop deployment and toll in blood and treasure in Iraq.

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