Could détente between Russia and the United States spell an end to the civil war in Syria?
Despite a series of miscommunications over what the actual focus of their discussion may be, both the Kremlin and the White House have now confirmed that a face-to-face meeting between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin has been tentatively scheduled for Monday, when both leaders will attend the annual gathering of the U.N. general assembly meeting in New York.
The possible meeting on Monday recognizes the key role both the U.S. and Russia are playing in regions that have seen deep upheaval in recent years, with ongoing tensions in Ukraine as well as the deepening humanitarian concerns related to the civil war in Syria and the more protracted fight against the Islamic State as the primary topics.
While both governments remain coy about motivations and expectations, news of the meeting has spurred questions about whether renewed diplomatic efforts between the two large and influential countries will result in the furthering of much needed peace efforts, or whether—if mutual mistrust and finger-pointing cannot be overcome—diplomatic intransigence will deepen the already deplorable realities on the ground for the millions of civilians caught in the middle of ongoing fighting and military campaigns.
Russia has been requesting meetings for at least two years on the war in Syria. As Agence France-Presse reports, the scheduling of talks for Monday was seen by some as an important shift by the Obama administration, which may have realized that its imposed "isolation" of Putin on critical issues, especially the situation in Syria, was having a negative impact. That characterization, however, was not supported by White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest, who said it was the Russians who appeared "more desperate" for the meeting to occur.
"Naturally the top-priority topic will be Syria," said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, as he confirmed the meeting to Russian media. Peskov told reporters that Ukraine would be discussed "if time allowed."
The White House, however, said the talks would be focused on Ukraine and Russia's commitment to withdraw troops from areas near the eastern part of the country. Responding to Peskov's comments, Earnest said, "There will be time [to talk about Ukraine]."
As the Guardian notes, these "mixed messages arguably offer a superficial taste of deep geopolitical divisions likely to be on display next week."
And the geopolitical divisions surrounding the Syria crisis remain substantial. As Bloomberg reports on Friday, though the U.S. and Russia may have an elevated role, other players are also exerting their influence:
Leaders of the 28-nation European Union, which is grappling with the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, are pushing the U.S. in Russia’s direction. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Assad should be included in any solution to the civil war. “Assad will be part of that, but also others like the United States and Russia as well,” Merkel said.
European diplomats expect Putin to use his UN address on Sept. 28 to call for a broader alliance against Islamic State that includes Syria and Iran, and then propose a Security Council resolution on the issue.
The U.S. may see military-to-military talks with Russia as a way to facilitate a political settlement in Syria, said Olga Oliker, director for the Center for Russia and Eurasia at the RAND Corporation.
"The extent to which Russia can influence Assad, the extent to which there are negotiations and conversations to be had between Assad and the opposition, Russia may well be the path to them," Oliker said.
Meanwhile, with Russia recently bolstering its military support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with new arms shipments and trainers; with both the U.S. air campaign against ISIS and its strategy of arming of anti-Assad forces proving a disaster; and with the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis now at the center of attention in Europe—the failures of the status quo appear, at least to many foreign policy analysts, self-evident.
However, as the U.S. mainstream media goes through great pains to avoid highlighting the serious policy missteps and destructive outcome of the Obama administration's clandestine and overt military operations in Syria, independent journalist Adam Johnson this week pointed out the importance of understanding that recent history.
"As the military build-up and posturing in Syria between Russia and the United States escalates," Johnson wrote, "policy makers and influencers on this side of the Atlantic are urgently trying to portray the West’s involvement in Syria as either nonexistent or marked by good-faith incompetence. By whitewashing the West’s clandestine involvement in Syria, the media not only portrays Russia as the sole contributor to hostilities, it absolves Europe and the United States of their own guilt in helping create a refugee crisis and fuel a civil war that has devastated so many for so long."
According to veteran journalist Robert Parry—recently recognized by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation with the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence—the meeting on Monday could represent an important opportunity for the Obama administration to re-calibrate its stance toward Russia while paving a diplomatic path on Syria.
A "late-in-his-presidency course correction" on Russia and Syria should be "obvious" at this point, Parry wrote recently. Such a step, he continued, "would include embracing Russia’s willingness to help stabilize the political-military situation in Syria, rather than the Obama administration fuming about it and trying to obstruct it."
What would that possibly look like? Parry continued:
Obama could join with Russia in stabilizing Syria by making it clear to putative U.S. "allies" in the Mideast that they will face American wrath if they don’t do all that’s possible to cut off the terrorists of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda from money, weapons and recruits. That would mean facing down Turkey over its covert support for the Sunni extremists as well as confronting Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf sheikdoms over secret funding and arming of these jihadists.
If Obama made it clear that the United States would take stern action – such as inflicting severe financial punishments – against any country caught helping these terrorist groups, he could begin shutting down the jihadists’ support pipelines. He could also coordinate with the Russians and Iranians in cracking down on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda strongholds inside Syria.
On the political front, Obama could inform Syria’s Sunni "moderates" who have been living off American largesse that they must sit down with President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives and work out a power-sharing arrangement and make plans for democratic elections after a reasonable level of stability has been restored. Obama would have to ditch his mantra: "Assad must go!"
And, he concluded, "Given the severity of the crisis—as the refugee chaos now spreads into Europe—Obama doesn’t have the luxury anymore of pandering to the neocons and liberal interventionists. Instead of talking tough, he needs to act realistically."