Having worked to understand and improve U.S.-Russian relations, I was surprised to see the agreement in Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov regarding the conflict in Syria.
The path to a negotiated end to that civil war will be filled with pitfalls and could explode in our faces. Yet the fact that Moscow and Washington are singing from the same hymnal injects optimism into a seemingly hopeless situation.
Only weeks ago, the United States was criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin for stomping on human rights in Russia. He responded in kind, and thus to outsiders, the move toward closer relations makes no sense. But that is the way foreign policy often moves. What is said publicly is often not indicative of what is going on behind the scenes.
In terms of policy, Moscow and Washington have sharply different positions. Moscow has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest supporter. Indeed, Syria’s weapons inventory is almost entirely Russian in origin. Also, Moscow was nonplused at being excluded from intervention in Libya. Russia provided support but was left out of the decision making process. Additionally, Russians fear the opposition in Syria. Given Russia’s support of Assad, the opposition — regardless of who it is — will be hostile to Moscow.
Finally, the Kremlin fears the rise of Iran and the possibility that the region could erupt in war. Israel’s recent air strikes on Syria were a major impetus; the more involved Israel becomes, the more likely Iran or organizations like Hezbollah are to join the fight. In other words, Mos-cow fears chaos. The latter is in no one’s interest.
While some U.S. concerns mirror those of the Russians, President Barack Obama is under considerable pressure to do something on Syria, such as provide weapons to the opposition. So far our aid has been limited to non-lethal aid). There is also pressure for the U.S. to get involved in establishing a no-fly zone over Syria,
Another factor is the humanitarian issue. The war has cost about 70,000 lives, 4.25 million more are displaced, and roughly one in three Syrians — about 6.8 million people, half of them children — need urgent aid.
Of particular interest are indications that Russia’s position on Assad appears to be changing. To quote Lavrov, “I would like to emphasize we do not, we are not interested in the fate of certain persons. We are interested in the fate of the total Syrian people.”
Kerry said, “The alternative is that there is even more violence… The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss and into the chaos.”
Lavrov and Kerry issued a joint call for implementation of an agreement signed last year in Geneva calling for a transitional regime, negotiated between the Syrian government and the opposition. Getting the two sides together will be difficult If Assad is to be excluded (I can’t imagine the opposition sitting down with him), why should the government come to the table? And who will represent the opposition? Which group will the United States and Russia select? What guarantee is there that the rest of the opposition will consider it legitimate?
Both the United States and Russia fear the chaos that is quickly enveloping Syria. Both powers also are concerned about the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons and worry about what would happen if al-Qaida were to get hold of even a small amount of them. Another worry is that Iran will get more involved on the ground in Syria to the point that Israel will feel it necessary to respond more and more — an action that could quickly accelerate into conflict.
Kerry also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but only after a three-hour delay while Putin chewed his cabinet out.
Russia and the United States have agreed to work together in spite of their very different positions on Syria. The cooperation is certainly better than what we saw in the past. The problem is that we may be too late. If the United States had moved earlier to get involved (not with troops on the ground), and had CIA people on the ground working with the various opposition groups, relationships that could be useful now would have been created. Similarly, if Russia had pressured Assad earlier, we would be in a far better position that we are now.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.