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The American-Russian dance on Syria

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The increasing volatility of the situation in Syria has forced both Washington and Moscow into re-evaluating their positions and finding new common ground on the conflict. Both now agree on a dialogue between the regime and the opposition leading to a transitional government that excludes President Bashar al-Assad, while differences linger on the role of Iran and the Islamists in any new power structure.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a picture perfect press conference with his counterpart and “friend” Sergey Lavrov in Moscow this Tuesday. They spoke strikingly similar political language -Kerry even used some Russian- in conveying the “larger strategic interest”-the need for close cooperation on Syria to avoid alternatives that range from chaos to ethnic cleansing. It was a new kind of tone that took two years and over 80,000 deaths to emerge, and while it might not be enough to end the crisis, it offers glimpse of hope for achieving a political solution.


Beyond Assad

Kerry’s visit, according to diplomatic sources, came at the request of the U.S. President Barack Obama, who along with his senior aides, mainly National Security advisor Tom Donilon and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, have given preference to pursuing the Russian track for a political solution in Syria. The Kremlin is an old ally of the Assad regime, and Syria hosts Russia’s only naval post in the Mediterranean. In addition, arms trade and military ties are strong between the two governments, exceeding $4 billion in Russian contracts last year (Oxford Analytica).

Russia has a historical problem with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist movements in general, and wants to prevent their rise into power in Syria

Joyce Karam

Politically, both the U.S. and Russia are embracing the Geneva Communiqué calling for dialogue between the regime and the opposition, to commence at an international conference as soon as the end of the month. Kerry and Lavrov appear to have bridged a key difference over Assad’s future. In Moscow, Kerry refrained from calling on the Syrian President to step down, and instead stressed on the need for a transitional government with “full executive authority” including “the military and security services.” Lavrov, for his part, reiterated that Russia is “not concerned with the fate of specific individuals” while the New York Times reported that Lavrov suggested “a transitional government that would not include Assad.” The embattled president is slated to finish his term in May 2014, and while he has told private guests his intention to run, a Russian shift against such move would add complicate such intentions.

Fighting extremism, preventing the disintegration of Syria, and avoiding regional chaos as well as protecting the Chemical weapons are the new parameters for U.S.-Russian cooperation on the conflict. The events of the last few months, such as the sectarian nature of the fighting, military involvement of Hezbollah, Israeli strikes inside Damascus, and even the Boston bombing, have forced a policy re-evaluation and more urgency from the White House to find an exit strategy. The weakening of the state infrastructure and fear of losing control over the Chemical weapons is also a mutual concern for both Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Iran and Brotherhood

The U.S.-Russian discussion has largely moved into post-Assad Syria, with a realization that a transition from the four decade old dictatorship into an inclusive power structure is key for the country’s stability. Some differences remain, however, between Washington and Moscow over the shape of the Syrian opposition and the role of Iran in a post Assad Syria.

Russia has a historical problem with the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist movements in general, and wants to prevent their rise into power in Syria. The Brotherhood is the strongest block in the Syrian opposition at the moment, with support of regional players such as Turkey and Qatar. This dynamic might be changing, however, with efforts underway, supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to reshuffle the opposition councils and expand their outreach to minorities as well as the armed rebels. It is not clear if such effort will materialize before the transition talks.

Moscow’s ties to Iran will also complicate the U.S.’s vision for a post-Assad Syria. Iranian influence, which spiked in Syria after Assad took power from his father in 2000, has been a major reason for tension with the Washington over the past decade. Seeing this influence diminish is a key objective for the U.S. in any new power structure in Syria. Russia might not be as keen on this aspect, given its strong trade ties with Iran amounting to $4.2 billion dollars in 2012. The U.S. has so far rejected Iranian demands to put the Syrian crisis on the table during the nuclear talks, despite Tehran’s increasingly influential role inside the Assad regime. Iran’s role and influence will most likely complicate the prospects of implementing any U.S.-Russian agreement that Tehran has not consented to.

By the same measures, such an agreement, if reached, will face immense hurdles from the opposition fighters on the ground. Opposition to an agreement would also occur if the Free Syrian Army were not part of such deal, or if outside funding kept flowing to groups such as Jabhat Nusra.

A potential U.S.-Russian agreement does not warrant the end of the Syrian crisis, it promises a renewed diplomatic push, and more international pressure to reach a political solution. It also represents the safest exit strategy for the Obama administration which has been trying to avoid another military involvement in the region at all costs.


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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.