As often happens at G20 summits, the major diplomatic action in Los Cabos is taking place not in plenary sessions devoted to the world economy, but in discreet conversations between world leaders. Witness the bilateral meeting yesterday between presidents Obama and Putin over the deteriorating situation in Syria. That conversation suggested the outlines of a potential breakthrough, as both sides stare into the abyss of an all-out Syrian civil war. In their closing statement, Obama and Putin committed to the common goal of a “political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves.” Making tangible progress toward this objective will require restraint on the part of the Obama administration, and the stomach to grant Putin the outsized diplomatic role he craves as mediator.
Since the Assad regime began its bloody crackdown more than a year ago, Washington and Moscow have remained far apart. The Obama administration has repeatedly sought strong UN Security Council (UNSC) condemnation and sanctions against the Syrian government for atrocities that now transcend Muammar al-Qaddafi’s transgressions in Libya. Senior U.S. officials, from Obama on down, have made it clear that Assad must go, only to be stymied by Moscow, determined to shield its most important client state and diplomatic foothold in the Middle East, which besides being a loyal arms customer, hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.
Despite its rhetoric, the Obama administration has flinched from arming the Syrian rebels as part of a deepening proxy war (in which Russia and Iran are arrayed against Sunni Arab states), much less organizing a Kosovo-like “coalition of the willing” outside UNSC auspices to depose Assad. Washington’s reluctance to bite the bullet reflects uncertainty about the coherence of the Syrian opposition, concern about the spillover effects of a deepening sectarian war, and the domestic political risks of launching yet another military intervention in the Muslim world a few months before the November elections.
This leaves a diplomatic agreement between the United States and Russia as the only realistic option to try to avoid all-out civil war in Syria. Fortunately, the distance separating Moscow and Washington may be narrowing. Saturday’s decision to suspend the UN observer mission in reaction to escalating violence places pressure on Moscow to launch a serious diplomatic initiative, to head off all-out civil war and eventual external intervention that it may oppose but cannot stop. In Los Cabos, Putin and Obama agreed on the need to avoid civil war, through a “political process” that leads to a negotiated settlement.
For the Obama administration, this provides an opportunity. The key is to recognize that what Putin craves above all is the mantle of a global statesman and recognition of Russia’s continued global power status. The United States should invite Moscow to take on a stronger mediation role, including by convening a conference in St. Petersburg or another Russian city that involves both the Assad regime and representatives of the Syrian opposition. Such an invitation from Moscow would be tough for Assad to decline. For its part the Obama administration should hold its nose and stop talking about regime change in Syria, opening up the possibility that a negotiated settlement could leave Assad in power during a defined transition phase. It is telling, in this regard, that Obama refrained in Los Cabos from saying that Assad had to go.
Would such a diplomatic gambit work? Given the massive flow of arms into Syria, and the support of powerful outsides sponsors like Iran and Saudi Arabia for the contending sides, it may be too late to head off full-scale civil war. And certainly, Syrian rebel forces would look skeptically on any Russian hosted peace conference, particularly if Russia’s own arms flows to Assad continued. But U.S. presence as an ally for the Syrian rebels would give them significant sway at any discussions. It is worth a final effort to head off catastrophic bloodshed and regional upheaval, particularly if the gathering includes heavy involvement by the United States and other major representatives of the “Friends of Syria” coalition. To agree to such an arrangement, Putin would need certain guarantees. These could include a promise that any transitional government would not alter Russia’s naval presence.
Launching such a peace overture might not stop the violence immediately, but at this stage there are simply no better alternatives, given the incoherence of the rebel forces, the risks of sectarian implosion, and the likelihood that deepening violence will spill over into Syria’s neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and perhaps Turkey. While the U.S. military stands prepared to do whatever its commander in chief decides, both the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and one of his predecessors, Colin Powell, have warned of the complexities of any U.S.-led military operation.
Given these constraints, the most promising way forward is for the United States and Russia to jointly draft a Security Council resolution they can both live with. This would build on the joint statement of principles Putin and Obama agreed to in Los Cabos, setting out the contours and preconditions for the envisioned “political transition.” Ideally, it would call for an immediate cease-fire, the cessation of weapons shipments by all outside parties, the cantonment of the Syrian army and armed rebels, the establishment of humanitarian corridors, and the deployment of armed UN peacekeepers to replace the suspended observer mission—with a mandate to enforce separation of forces while negotiations occur over political transition.