A testing period ahead for Syrian endgame
Two sets of back-to-back summit meetings this week are going to be watched with keen interests in the endgame around the Syrian conflict – one, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meetings with the Iranian leaders Monday in Tehran and with the visiting French President Francois Hollande in Moscow on Thursday, and, two, Hollande’s meetings with US President Barack Obama on Tuesday and with Putin two days later.
France is positioning itself alongside Russia, Iran and the United States as a key country in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
Unsurprisingly, Britain is scrambling to catch up with France’s early lead. After all, the chaos in Syria, Mesopotamia and the Levant is a shared Anglo-French legacy, as the infamous Sykes-Picot Pact constantly reminds us.
Britain’s strategy will be in two directions – to insert itself as an interventionist power in Syria without any further loss of time, and, secondly, by harmonizing the British diplomatic stance with the US’ and thereby enabling London to play a larger-than-life role in the search for a political settlement.
Accordingly, Prime Minister David Cameron promptly seized the resolution passed by the UN Security Council (R 2249) on counter-terrorism on Friday to claim that his government now possesses the mandate of the world body to militarily intervene in Syria, which was a pre-condition set by the House of Commons during the historic vote in August 2013 when it turned down the earlier request on intervention.
Of course, Obama administration is delighted that Cameron feels ‘unbound’ and is raring to join the fight against the IS. Britain’s absence in the barricades was keenly felt in Washington. An active British role serves the US interests militarily but even more so in the diplomatic skullduggery that lies ahead.
Indeed, Cameron is losing no time and by Monday morning he is already in Paris to meet Hollande. Cameron will seek inputs from the meeting to finesse his proposals to the House of Commons on the scope of the British operations in Syria and, importantly, he also hopes to steer Britain into a lead role in the diplomatic parleys.
Without doubt, Cameron will ascertain what exactly Hollande has in mind in pushing for a stronger international coalition against the IS that includes Russia as well, and make it a point to brief Obama before he sits down with the visiting French President Tuesday evening in the White House.
Having said that, British thinking on Syria is also yet to crystallize.
A report by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons last week recommended that Britain should not join the allied bombing in Syria “unless there is a coherent strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIL (IS) and of ending the civil war in Syria… We consider the focus on the extension of the air strikes against ISIL in Syria is a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitator’s of ISIL’s rise… The Foreign Secretary told us that to relent in its pressure on Assad would act as a “recruiting sergeant” for ISIL. We are not persuaded that talks involving all parties (including Assad) would be any more of an incentive for people to join ISIL than allowing the continuation of the chaos and the conflict.”
However, the bottom line is that Britain will ultimately harmonize its stance with the US approach. Thus, Obama’s remarks at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday assume great significance.
Obama put the ball in Putin’s court by making the astounding claim that destroying the IS is “not only a realistic goal, we’re (US-led coalition) going to get it done”, but “it will be helpful” if Moscow readjusts its focus from the preservation of the Syrian regime to the fight against the IS. Obama stressed that if Putin is willing to make the necessary “strategic readjustment”, Russia could also be admitted to join the US-led coalition against the IS.
But Obama was categorical that “as a practical matter, it is not conceivable that Mr. Assad can regain legitimacy in a country in which a large majority of the country despises Assad and will not stop fighting so long as he is in power.”
He viewed the success of the Vienna talks on its ability to “recognize the need for a new government” in Syria.
Obama added, “Russia has not officially committed to a transition of Assad moving out, but they did agree to the political transition process. And I think we will find out over the next several weeks whether or not we can bring about that change of perspective with the Russians”.
Of course, what Obama didn’t say was that he’d expect Putin to soften up the Iranian leaders during his “working visit” to Tehran today. But what he did say was that Hollande is with him on the same page on this issue. By saying so, Obama may have pre-empted Hollande’s conversation with Putin in the Kremlin on Thursday.
The heart of the matter is that in the West’s reading of the paradigm shift, influential sections of the Kremlin elite are keen to normalize the relations with the West and consider the negotiations over Syria as the means to the current engagement with the US, which in the ultimate analysis is of greater geopolitical significance to Russia than the West. It is predicated on the assessment that Putin made a military gamble in Syria.
The Financial Times on Sunday, dwelling on this hypothesis, reported that western diplomats who have been talking with the Russians are “increasingly hopeful about the prospect of a political deal over the future of Syria” and their optimism “is nurtured by recent signs of Russia’s cooperation, as well as a belief that Moscow’s military intervention in Syria is faltering”.
The FT quoted a “senior European intelligence official” as estimating that “Kremlin had misjudged what its military intervention in Syria could achieve.
“The Russians had since ‘looked under the bonnet’ and discovered the Syrian army and militias supporting it were incapable of winning the war in Syria”.
Quite obviously, a vicious ‘information war’ is also being waged even as the endgame in Syria is surging. On a parallel track, a concerted western pressure tactic has been apparent for some weeks already aimed at driving a wedge between Moscow and Tehran as well.
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