John Kerry, the erudite and compassionate US Secretary of State, finally agreed with his Russian counterpart, the equally gifted Sergey Lavrov, to convene a new Geneva international peace conference on Syria. The move led the joint United Nation-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to renege on his planned resignation, after he described the Washington-Moscow deal as “the first hopeful news” in a very long time. Should we be confident that global antagonists were ready to approve a way out?
Beyond the diplomatic ballet that saw Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow over the course of a week, the unending civil war continued to claim lives — objectively over 100,000 dead, even if diplomatic minions remained stuck on the 70,000 figure. In the event, Russia showed no signs that this horror affected it, as it was not ready to alter its support for the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Consequently, whatever international consensus existed to do something about Syria proved elusive, on account of the Russian/Chinese vetoes at the Security Council.
Such obduracy aside, confused news reports attributed to Kerry what he did not say — that Al Assad cannot be part of a transitional government — though few focused on the fact that Moscow refused to stop the delivery of advanced S-300 missile batteries to Syria. Speaking before the talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Rome, Kerry declared that all sides were working to “effect a transition government by mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgement, President Al Assad will not be a component of that transitional government,” without specifying what might arise in the months and years to come.
Admittedly, the vague language meant that the forthcoming Geneva talks would only be crowned by fresh ambiguity, perhaps to allow all sides to claim some victory, while the killing machines would churn out more victims and the destruction of an entire nation would continue unabated.
Still, the mere fact that yet another meaningless Geneva conference would occur confirmed that Washington conceded to Moscow a short-term victory, because the demand for talks between revolutionary forces and the regime, without precluding a role for Al Assad, was a Russian condition. How Russia intended to translate this advantage on the ground was blurry, though much depended on whether major powers welcomed a relatively felicitous outcome or whether they favoured classic procrastination.
Cynicism aside, at least three specific contentions existed that drove the American-Russian entente over Syria:
First: Both superpowers sought to strengthen the status quo in Syria that met their primary objective: To protect Israel. On this score, there were no differences between the two leading powers, customary rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. When all was said and done, Israel would no longer fear Syria, especially if Damascus was preoccupied with a decade-long civil war.
Second: As part of the regional strategic renovation, the two powers noted the self-immolation of Hezbollah, whose leaders expanded their writ beyond Lebanon. In as much as this catastrophe neutralised a potential powder keg, both Washington and Moscow looked on the development with glee.
Third: Of course, part of the entente rested on the notion that current dependencies continued and, in certain instances, solidified. With fewer and fewer allies, Damascus’ reliance on Moscow was at its apex, while those of pro-western countries on Washington reached equally high levels. This was a satisfactory outcome no matter what Geneva-bound diplomats asserted.
Nevertheless, and even if mutually beneficial contentions existed, there were also several disagreements, led by the American desire to expel Iran from the Arab World. To be sure, Moscow objected, though few ought to have any illusions that leading western powers were determined to end the Iranian-Syrian strategic linkage. Towards that end, they encouraged Turkey to assert itself, whose proximity to Syria meant that Ankara could not remain an idle spectator.
If and when the proposed Geneva Conference convened, the US and Russia were likely to hammer a ceasefire deal and may even persuade their respective allies to join in the “celebration”. Naturally, such a development will please Damascus, since the besieged government supported discussions that legitimised its brutality. Of course, Damascus was likely to abide by any ceasefire calls, provided revolutionary forces accepted its terms. Herein lay the conundrum.
Although divided and unable to speak with a single voice, Syrian opposition forces were not able to accept a ceasefire or any political conditions that ensured relative parity between them and the regime, for doing so, would essentially hand over a victory to the Baath regime. In fact, and no matter how many gathered at Geneva conferences to pontificate, most Syrians understood that the fate of the nation rested in their own hands. Most realised that Syria was the “pawn-du jour” on the international checkerboard, with leading powers engaged in ententes to serve their own interests, not those of the hapless Syrian population. Most welcomed foreign humanitarian, financial and military aid, though they also aspired for freedom, aware that global strategic competition stood in the way.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).