From Russian escalation to a negotiated solution in Syria

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From Russian escalation to a negotiated solution in Syria

From Russian escalation to a negotiated solution in Syria

By J. Dana Stuster
November 16, 2015 | THE HILL

Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings with counterparts from the Gulf states, Iran, and Russia in Vienna represent the best chance the United States has for resolving Syria’s civil war. While Russia’s recent escalation clearly risks prolonging the violence needlessly, it could turn out to be the catalyst for a resolution to the crisis. Russia’s strikes so far and the fact that the meetings are happening at all are a reason to pursue this diplomatic opening, especially when the United States has few options in Syria short of risking a direct military conflict with Russia.

When Russia began conducting airstrikes in defense of the Assad regime a month ago, the assessment of many Kremlinologists was that it was the latest manifestation of President Vladimir Putin’s impulsive action bias. “The question is, have the Russians thought two or three moves ahead?” Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said. “This to me looks suspiciously like what happened in Ukraine, where what seemed like a good idea, a very pressurized decision by the Russians to unleash aggression against Ukraine, has backfired quite badly.”

Now it is increasingly clear that Russia is not trying to retake all of Syria. The Russian escalation, even supported by the approximately 2,000 Iranian troops the United States believes is operating with Assad regime forces, is not of the scale necessary to completely shift the balance of power in Syria. As Daniel Serwer noted at the outset, even if Russia were to fill the new barracks they’ve constructed, it would constitute “a far bigger commitment than the few advisors Russia has maintained in Syria in the past, but it is not a force likely to make much of a difference…in the ongoing civil war there.” Russia is targeting opposition forces in Aleppo and Idlib, but is not aggressively striking Kurdish militias or the Islamic State.

Outside of Syria, Moscow has been participating in a series of consultations with other foreign leaders about the civil war. There was Assad’s late-night visit to the Kremlin, then talks with the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in Vienna, some coordination with Iran, and even Russian claims that it was meeting with Syrian rebel groups. Russia appears to be looking for a way to wind down the war sooner rather than later.

There is an international consensus that the only sustainable conclusion to the crisis in Syria is a negotiated political solution; this is frequently acknowledged by President Obama. Even Assad’s erstwhile arms-supplier China reiterated its support for peace talks at U.N. General Assembly. But there’s also a sense of resignation and diplomatic complacency with the stagnated civil war.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. [U.S. Department of State, accessed 11/16/15]

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