Problems on hold
As last October drew to a close, the city of Vienna witnessed United Nations-backed peace talks on Syria. Participating in the talks were 19 global and regional powers that have played effective roles in the four-and-a-half-year-old Syrian crisis. There were Iran and Saudi Arabia, who kindled the conflict; Russia and a number of countries who are attempting to find a way out of the crisis; and the United States and its allies, who schemed to break up Syria. It took seven hours of discussions for the parties to reach an agreement.
In the press conference that followed the agreement, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that the participants in the talks avoided finger pointing and did not go into who was responsible for the Syrian crisis. Instead, they were unanimous on inviting a bold UN initiative that would convene representatives of the Syrian government and Syrian opposition to draw a political process that would lead to credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance followed by a new constitution and elections. They all agreed that Daesh and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council and further as agreed by the participants, must be defeated. The aim was that the Syrian people alone should define the future of their country.
The mention of terrorist groups served to highlight differences between the US and Russia. Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov admitted they would continue to disagree but that they could not allow their differences to get in the way of finding a resolution for the crisis. The differences were especially marked when the two officials mentioned terrorist groups; Kerry cited only Daesh, whereas Mr Lavrov made it clear that there were other groups and organisations designated by the UNSC as terrorist.
Mr Kerry said the US insists that Syrian President Assad should have no role in Syria’s future—he explicitly said: “Assad must go”. But Mr Lavrov said that Assad should be on the negotiating table, and that “the Syrian people should decide Assad’s fate.”
Meanwhile, what really took the world by surprise was the Obama administration decision, announced on the day of the Vienna talks, to send “fewer than 50” special forces troops to Syria “to advise rebels supported by Washington in the fight against Islamist State (IS) militants,” the White House said. The news was so stunning that a number of TV channels and international news sites took to airing footage that showed Obama a few months earlier firmly saying there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria. Reporters at the Vienna press conference bombarded Mr Kerry with questions on the unexpected change in US policy. He replied that it was a mere coincidence that President Obama’s decision should be issued that same day of the Vienna talks. Mr Kerry said that he had been involved in talks at the White House on the issue of sending US troops into Syria and knew about the US President’s decision to do so.
I would like to believe Mr Kerry, but I cannot help thinking that the recent change in the rules of the game in Syria, because of Russian military assistance to Assad’s forces against the militant Islamists, has been behind President Obama’s turnaround. There can be no doubt that the US was attempting to gain the clout it had lost in the region.
I felt pity for Mr Kerry when he attempted to justify President Obama’s decision by citing the outcome of the US-led coalition airstrikes against Daesh throughout last year. The airstrikes failed miserably at making any dent in Daesh’s might, yet Mr Kerry listed the number of airstrikes and cited their success in halting the expansion of Daesh into Iraq and Syria. I felt pity for Mr Kerry since his words only served to call to mind the fact that Daesh was not held back by any western coalition airstrikes, and has actually invaded a third of Iraq and Syria, and is threatening to overrun more territory. The effectiveness of the recent Russian airstrikes, however, revealed without doubt the feebleness and ineffectiveness of the US-led coalition strikes.
I really wish that the political process agreed upon in the Vienna talks would work to fulfil the will of the Syrian people. This should come about through UN guarantees, Russian firmness, US penitence, and the stepping aside of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
8 November 2015