Washington and Moscow trying to square a circle in Syria (Comment)

After 70,000 Syrians have paid with their lives in the foreign induced conflict in Syria, why has the American perspective changed? Even so, it was nice to see Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embrace each other in Moscow. Kerry also met President Vladimir Putin who, in Kerry’s presence, asked Lavrov to take over the task of navigating the Syrian crisis towards a peaceful resolution.

At about the same time two years ago, Hillary Clinton, with an imperious wave of the hand, was demanding that “Assad, get out of the way”. Why then would the US, and its allies, accept the Geneva Communiqué which envisages an end to violence and creation of a transitional government which could include members of the Assad regime.

If Israeli air strikes inside Syria and allegations of use of chemical weapons either by the regime or the opposition had not captured recent headlines, there would be pretty little for Kerry to discuss with the Kremlin leadership. What transpired in Moscow under the circumstances appears to be an endorsement of the Lavrov-Assad line on Syria which has, in essentials, remained unchanged over the past two years.

What was the purpose of Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets? They were a reminder that the splintered opposition needed help because it was no longer able to hold ground.

The strikes came in the wake of an anti-Assad regime whisper campaign about chemical weapons having been used. Just when this rumour began to acquire wings, appeared from within the ranks of an otherwise supine UN, a Carla del Ponte, member of the UN panel investigating the conflict in Syria. She threw a monkey wrench into the the chemical weapons propaganda.

She said there were “strong, concrete suspicions” that Syrian rebels had used poison gas. When the plot boomeranged, a shiver went up and down many spines. White House spokesman Jay Carney introduced a delightful bit of ambiguity: “We are highly skeptical of any suggestion that the opposition used chemical weapons.” He banished skepticism in the next observation: “We think it highly likely that the Assad regime was responsible…” This is one White House attitude and Kerry’s in Moscow quite another. Which one do we believe?

Diplomatic grapevine has been abuzz with President Barack Obama’s telephonic exchange urging Putin to restrain Damascus from any retaliation which would cause the crisis from spiralling out of control. The UN has been told that Syria had the right to retaliate but it would choose its moment. Damascus has declared it can no longer restrain Palestinian resistance along Israeli borders on the Golan Heights.

The Kerry-Lavrov duet has, after months of stalled co-operation, announced an international conference, possibly by May-end, to bring the civil war to a close and pave the way for a peaceful settlement. The question that will plague the conveners of the conference will be: how to create a coherent delegation out of 148 disjointed groups?

Assad will be able to put together his representation quite easily. This contrast will cause deep consternation in Congressional circles in the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France and Israel.

The idea clearly is for Washington and Moscow to be armed with a positive document on Syria at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland June 17-18.

On current showing, there is no coherence between the White House and the State Department even on the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Place the US Congress, Pentagon, CIA in this calculus, and parties arrayed behind the Syrian opposition have enough time, up to mid June, to wreck whatever architecture Kerry may have in mind for the G8 summit to consider. Who knows, the arch wrecker may be within that August body itself.

Remember, Iranian presidential election results will be out June 14, by which time Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and Tel Aviv will have worked themselves into a frenzy about their red-hot Syrian project taking a disastrous route to peace. Are Obama and Kerry strong enough to withstand pressure from the rest of the Washington establishment plus these countries and Turkey.

On what the future portends, I shall reserve judgement at least until the summit in Northern Ireland. I am even willing to wait until the Obama-Putin summit in Moscow in September.

After Ben Ali in Tunis and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo became casualties of the so-called Arab Spring, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia emerged from convalescence in Europe and, along with the Emir of Qatar, took charge. They rented NATO for the Libyan action and coaxed Washington and Europe to help stoke internal conflict in Syria. This column had argued then why Assad would not fall. Well, he is not about to fall quite yet.

But Riyadh and Qatar have been encouraged to invest too much in the conflict to call back the dogs of war. They have nothing to show as a trophy except a destroyed nation. They face a greater existential crisis today than they did in February 2011.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior political commentator. He can be reached on [email protected])

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