Russia could help in resolution of Syrian conflict: US expert

Washington, May 9 (IANS/RIA Novosti) While an internationally brokered resolution of the Syrian conflict may not yet be within sight, Russia is in a position to play a crucial role in pushing the Syrian elites to accept a transition process, an American expert has said.

This week saw Washington and Moscow reach an agreement on holding international talks on Syria.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League’s special envoy to Syria, welcomed the agreement as “a very significant step forward”.

Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

Kerry said the US believes that the two countries share some significant common interests with respect to Syria – “stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere”.

Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said this comes in stark contrast to Kerry’s predecessor in the post, Hillary Clinton.

He said Clinton “adopted a very hard line on (President Bashar al-) Assad’s departure, which made the prospect of negotiations with either Assad himself or with Moscow difficult”.

Mankoff finds this apparent convergence of positions encouraging, but notes that “forging an effective transition plan will remain extremely difficult”.

He argues that this inherent difficulty is further exacerbated by Assad’s own tenacious grip on power and by the pressure on US President Barack Obama to arm the rebels directly.

“I’m not sure even Russia is in a position to ‘deliver’ Assad to peace talks that would likely result in his downfall. I suppose Moscow could join in the arms embargo, but it would likely require a significant quid pro quo from Washington to do so, and I am not even sure what that quid pro quo would be,” Mankoff said.

International talks could be the start of this process of transition, Mankoff argues.

“But again, the biggest challenge will be getting Assad on board, or at least, enough of his inner circle that he can be compelled,” Mankoff said.

And it is here, he believes, that Russia could play a key role.

“I think Russia has an opportunity to use its contacts with other members of the Syrian elite (including the military, Alawite community, etc.) to get their buy-in for a political solution, even if Assad personally will not go along,” he said.

“I don’t think the US, much less Turkey or any of the Gulf states, has the credibility to sell a transition plan to the Alawites and members of the current elite. Russia might, but it would need to be able to deliver a lot in terms of promises of security so that a post-conflict Syria does not look like Iraq did after Saddam’s fall.”

Syria has been locked in a civil war since demonstrations broke out against Assad in March 2011. According to UN estimates, at least 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

–IANS/RIA Novosti

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