A Closing Window

Russias President Vladimir Putin walks past US President Barack Obama as he arrives to pose for the family photo during the G20 summit on September 6, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Russias President Vladimir Putin walks past US President Barack Obama as he arrives to pose for the family photo during the G20 summit on September 6, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama’s negotiations with Russia over securing the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons have created a small window of opportunity to reset the international negotiations on ending Syria’s civil war. For the past two-and-a-half years both Washington and Moscow, for contrasting reasons, have genuinely sought an end to the civil war in Syria. However, Washington and Moscow have struggled to co-operate not only because of an absence, at times, of common ground, but also because of a deep sense of distrust.

One of the critical failings of President Obama’s presidency has been his administration’s relations with Russia. While President Obama initially sought to “reset” the relations after the poor period of mutual hostility during the Bush presidency, he ended up falling into the pitfalls of his predecessor. The American president too quickly wrote-off Russia’s perception of its strategic position, and treated Moscow not as an equal partner but as a state that should accommodate America’s foreign policy at the expense of its own interests. Equally so, Washington placed too much emphasis on Russia’s human rights record, and allowed Russian-American relations to be constrained over differences in how each state managed its own domestic affairs. This, then, produced a deep level of rhetorical besmirching of one another’s actions.

Moscow believed, as well, that its understanding of the UN Resolution of 1973 which authorized force in Libya had been violated by the US, France, and Great Britain when they expanded the military campaign in Libya. Going beyond protecting Benghazi, NATO engaged in a sustained campaign which Moscow never signed-off on and resulted in regime change. As a result, the Kremlin is very wary then to trust the US’s intentions when it comes to resolving the crisis in Syria.

Russia and the United States also have contrasting perceptions of one another’s actions. Both states seek an end to the civil war in Syria in order to preserve Syria’s multi-confessional identity. But the Kremlin views America's actions as predominantly empowering Islamist groups at the expense of the secular, multi-confessional nature of the country. In their view, the United States too quickly sought to change government in Syria without ensuring first that the opposition itself was inclusive as well as opposing the regime.

The White House has countered that President Assad and President Putin are the largest roadblocks to forming such a government. In its place, employing limited resources, the US has tried to build a coherent opposition that could replace President Assad. Almost two-and-a-half years into the conflict, the Syrian opposition has failed to organize itself as an effective, multi-confessional contender for leadership, but instead has become one that is riveted by differences and drowned-out by the extremist rhetoric of groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS.

However, neither the United States nor Russia has succeeded in creating a process which could bring the regime and the opposition to the table for negotiations. There is much hope that the negotiations with President Assad, led by Russia and the United States, on relinquishing Syria’s chemical weapons could create an opening for larger Geneva II-style negotiations on resolving the civil war.

These wider peace negotiations are not guaranteed, and without a sustained diplomatic effort by, not only President Obama, but also President Putin that engages all parties involved in the civil war---including Iran---these negotiations are unlikely to occur. While many can find fault in either Russia or the United States for not doing enough to end the civil war, a larger peace initiative will not succeed without both states being committed to this process. The annual meeting of the UN General Assembly creates then an opportunity for the United States and Russia to build a coalition of support for these negotiations. However, if neither party seizes this moment and waits until the chemical weapons negotiations are over to genuinely make a push for a negotiated settlement along the lines of Geneva II, the window for these talks could be closed again.


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