A bid by Washington and Moscow to find a political solution in war-torn Syria has set off a flurry of diplomacy, but experts aren’t sold that there’s much common ground between the two.
In the latest twist, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month over concerns Moscow is preparing to supply Syria with advanced air defense weapons.
It would come on the heels of this week’s relaunch of the United States’ diplomatic efforts with Russia, the powerful protector of President Bashar al-Assad, amid a ballooning casualty toll in Syria and the likely use of chemical weapons.
Now in its third year, the conflict has claimed between 70,000 and 100,000 lives, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry, and threatens to spill over into the entire region.
With that as a backdrop, the top US diplomat met Tuesday in Moscow with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Deeply divided for months on Syria, they agreed to make a joint push for peace and to hold an international conference on the conflict.
This gathering, which could take place in Geneva in late May, would build upon the Geneva Communique agreed by world powers on June 30, 2012.
Never implemented, it set out a path toward a transitional government in Syria without ever spelling out al-Assad’s fate.
Washington, in contrast to Moscow, has long insisted that Assad must go, but Kerry suggested that Washington no longer considered the Syrian leader’s departure a prerequisite to establish a transitional authority.
“The change is that both we and the Russians are going to work very hard to get both of these sides to the table and implement this plan,” deputy State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday.
But on Friday, Lavrov confirmed that Russia was continuing to deliver military hardware to the Assad regime, including anti-aircraft systems, in defiance of calls for a freeze.
Netanyahu’s plans to visit Moscow later this month was reportedly prompted by concerns that Russia was preparing to ship Syria S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which can defend against multiple aircraft and missiles.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the visit to AFP, but declined to give details, while Israeli officials said on condition of anonymity that the two leaders would meet “soon” but did not elaborate.
Israel has twice this month launched air strikes inside Syria to prevent arms shipments to Hezbollah, the Shiite force in Lebanon allied to Syria and Iran.
Meanwhile, US experts are skeptical that the United States and Russia are truly prepared to work in concert on Syria.
Stephen Sestanovich, an expert in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said this week’s agreement on a peace conference “moves the Geneva formula one step further, but what is one step beyond complete meaninglessness?”
“The real issue is whether the Russians are prepared to tell Assad and his supporters that the jig is really up for their regime,” he added.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said he was not convinced that the different players’ positions had changed “that much.”
“There is some verbal acrobatics, as I would call it, that are coming out of the White House and the State Department,” he said.
But Shaikh stressed that “the situation on the ground” — rather than diplomatic efforts — “will continue to shape events.”
President Barack Obama said that there were no “easy answers” on Syria, two weeks after his administration first cited the Syrian regime’s possible use of chemical weapons against its own people.
While calling such a move a “game changer,” Obama has stressed there was insufficient proof to determine whether a “red line” had indeed been crossed.
The Obama administration is haunted by a precedent set in 2003, when former president George W. Bush launched the US-led invasion of Iraq under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
“The one lesson we learned from Iraq and the last administration is… How can I say it? In managing the affairs in Iraq, they destroyed every institution. There was no structure left. There wasn’t even a Department of Public Works,” Vice President Joe Biden told Rolling Stone magazine in an interview published Friday.
“And we know we can fix that, if we’re willing to spend a trillion dollars and 160,000 troops and 6,000 dead, but that we cannot do,” he added, in reference to the US troop deployment and toll in blood and treasure in Iraq.