Sunday, December 20, 2015

UNSC Approves Resolution on Syria: Russia, US Make Strides in Boosting Cooperation in Middle East (II)

Andrei AKULOV | 21.12.2015 | 00:00

See Part I
Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) believes US double standards towards Russia and refusal to work with President Putin in the Middle East and elsewhere have resulted in an Islamist takeover in Libya and bloodshed in Syria. «The double standard that we have been judging Russia with, and basing our policy on that double standard, has caused us great harm», Rohrabacher said at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. 
«Had we been working with the Russians all along in good faith, I believe the situation in the Middle East would have been totally different, and better, more stable».
«The double standard that we’ve been judging Russia… is just overwhelming», Rohrabacher said. Noting that he had taken great pride in fighting against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, he said that Russians had expected to be treated as friends after the conflict ended, but were only met with more hostility. He also pointed out that the US had turned down a Russian proposal to broker a compromise end to the civil war in Syria years ago because of this hostility. Now that Syria has «totally gone to hell, we still can’t get ourselves to try to look at Putin as a possible partner in cooperation to make things better», Rohrabacher stressed. 
«I believe it is our hostility to Russia that prevented us from creating a policy that would create a more stable Middle East», the congressman said.
When Rohrabacher asked why exactly that might be a US goal to begin with, Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, replied that Washington was protecting a «national security interest» because the situation in Syria affected the security of US allies – Israel, the Gulf Arab states, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
«By dealing with Putin instead of trying to demonize him, perhaps we could have had have more stability in Syria and our friends would be actually better off, than the current policy of ‘whatever we do, don’t work with Russia, and get rid of Assad’», Rohrabacher retorted. His testimony provides a clue to understanding why the Russia-US dialogue on international security has been, to great extent, stalled to complicate the situation in many areas and regions. 
The adoption of the UN resolution on Syria is a long-awaited breakthrough against the background of Russia - US discourse being in shambles. In fact, the United States is NATO’s leading member-state, so the channels of military cooperation between the United States and the alliance’s other countries, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, are totally frozen. Though not formally abolished, the Russia-NATO Council does not work. The alliance’s activity on Russia’s borders has been growing with retaliation on the part of Moscow to follow. The tensions are running high. Any incident, like the interception of plane may entail a tragic mistake. For the purpose of preventing the risk no matter what the circumstances could be (for instance, the two coalitions conducting their separate campaigns in Syria), the USSR and the US back in 1972 signed an inter-government agreement On The Prevention of Incidents On And Over the High Seas, which set a code of conduct both parties should abide by in case of direct contact. However that agreement applied mostly to ships, while these days military planes get involved ever more often. In the case of the both coalitions, air forces carry out the brunt of missions in Syria. To ward off threats it would be expedient to restore the operation of consultative groups of Russia and NATO in the spirit of the 1972 convention for exchanging information about flights by military planes and voyages by naval ships in the Mediterranean (and elsewhere). Against the backdrop of the explosive situation in the Middle East military cooperation should be restored on the pragmatic basis. The need for interaction stems from the common threats to international security, such as the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism, local crises, and the disastrous effects of the Arab Spring chain of government coups. No single state will be able to cope with these challenges on its own, so military cooperation between Russia and the US just has no alternative.
So far, Russia has justified blocking any type of international action besides talking as defending the norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states (except at the request of their leaders or with Security Council approval.) The United States has countered that the responsibility to protect civilians is part of what makes a sovereign legitimate and the international community worthy of that name (the responsibility to protect). 
But nobody wants to live in a world where either principle always trumps the other, but the current situation violates both principles and many other values. Looks like the time to change the focus of conversation.
The United States and Russia have a common interest in defeating the Islamic State and promoting an end to the conflict and chaos in Syria, and the U.S. and Russian militaries have a specific interest in cooperating to deconflict their respective military operations in and over the country. 
With Russia’s military deployments to Syria as part of separate coalition and US current strategy of conducting airstrikes and supporting moderate rebel groups having failed, the White House has little choice but to engage. Whether the US likes it or not, Russia is an increasingly important player in Syria, and any political solution will have to take account its interests. What Moscow cares about is preserving the Syrian state structure, which, it argues, the U.S. failed to do in Iraq and Libya. The facts on the ground have demonstrated that the Syrian President has much more support than the US believed he did. 
This presents the US with a clear choice: continue to support relatively weak opposition forces with support from key regional allies or work together with Russia in an effort to build a unified coalition to fight the Islamic State and give less priority to ousting Assad. The current policy approach has not yet succeeded after almost five years. The alternative would make the administration confront significant political opposition inside the country and likely from some U.S. allies. But successful U.S.-Russia cooperation could substantially alter the dynamics of the fight against the Islamic State and, hopefully, accelerate its defeat. This cooperation could include some form of coordination of international air strikes with ground operations as well as joint U.S.-Russia efforts to persuade other regional states to participate in the fight and to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and non-Islamic State opposition forces.
The UN resolution provides a solid ground for launching the process. 
The agreements on Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program have demonstrated that the both parties can do it. If there is a will, there is a way. Russia and the USA can negotiate win-win solutions for their countries on issues of high importance for not only the U.S. and Russia, but also the entire international community, despite all the hindrances on the way.
There is another sign to show the trend is positive. President Barack Obama urged Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on Dec. 18 to "deescalate tensions" with Iraq by continuing to withdraw Turkish forces from northern Iraq, the White House said in a statement.
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After all, Russian, U.S., European, Iranian, Saudi, Chinese and Indian interests are on the same side against an enemy that threatens all of them. Everyone agrees that IS must be defeated, even though they disagree on how to do it. We may never see the Syria we once knew. It will have to be put together again in a wholly new way. But the only way to do it is through negotiations among the various Syrian players (except those excluded by the UN), with the assistance of the international community, including Russia, Arab states and the West. Priority should be given to Syria people. They are the ones to decide their fate. All are interested in doing away with the IS that now controls large swathes of eastern Syria. This is not the time to snipe at each other, this is the time to save Syria and reach the common goal. As much as divided they were, Russia and the US managed to convince the Syrian the chemical weapons. It actually happened. They can do the right thing now.
On Dec. 18, a very important event made the world much safer. It is a big stride in the right direction to make the Middle East actors see light at the end of the tunnel. Russia and the US are among those who gained much.
Tags: UN Middle East Russia Syria US

UNSC Approves Resolution on Syria: Russia, US Make Strides in Boosting Cooperation in Middle East (I)

Andrei AKULOV | 20.12.2015 | 00:00

For the first time since the Syrian civil war began, world powers agreed on Dec.18 at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to embrace a plan for a cease-fire and a peace process that holds the distant prospect of ending the conflict.
The UNSC approved a resolution that calls for talks between the Syria’s government and opposition groups, as well as a cease-fire in the nation devastated by 5-year-old civil war. The resolution envisions the formation of a unity government and calls for an immediate halt to any attacks on civilian targets. A mechanism to monitor, verify, and report on the truce is to be worked out. The resolution gives Secretary General Ban Ki-moon one month to tell the Council how a cease-fire could work and how it could be monitored. The UN is asked to convene formal talks on a transitional government. The talks between the regime and opposition are targeted for early January. 
The document says elections must be held in the next 18 months. It makes no mention of whether incumbent President Assad will be able to run. The only groups excluded from the ceasefire are Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Offensive and defensive actions against such groups (a reference to air strikes by Russia and the US-led coalition) – are to continue.
The two biggest obstacles to a peace deal: the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the classification of armed groups as terrorists were left out of the document’s text. Russian and Iranian diplomats said the question of Mr. Assad wasn’t discussed because neither of the countries would accept a deal that calls for Mr. Assad’s exit, even at the end of a political transition period. 
The U.S. and its European allies have maintained that Mr. Assad must leave power, if not at the beginning of the 18-month transitional period spelled out in the road map, then by the end. For the U.S., the resolution continued a softening of the U.S. position on Mr. Assad. President Barack Obama, in a news conference reiterated his view that Mr. Assad had lost any legitimacy and couldn’t run the country, but said the views of pro-Assad powers such as Russia and Iran had to be considered.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Russia earlier in the week, had signaled the U.S. would allow Mr. Assad to remain as part of a transitional political process, a turnaround from his earlier insistence that the Syrian ruler couldn’t be part of a transition.
Al in all, the resolution broadly lays out a framework similar to the one agreed on in the last round of talks in Vienna in November. 
Diplomats acknowledged that enforcing a cease-fire in Syria will be extremely challenging given that the Islamic State extremist group controls vast territory and won’t honor a cease-fire. The goal, diplomats say, is for pockets of the cease-fire to hold between the Syrian army, Shiite militia and opposition groups so the focus can shift to fighting Islamic State and moving forward with a political process.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hosted the U.N. meeting, said the resolution sends «a clear message to all concerned that the time is now to stop the killing in Syria».
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that the Vienna format is the only way to bring all foreign players to the table and ensure a fair settlement in Syria through talks. «Today’s unanimous vote in the [UN Security] Council should pave the way for the formation of a broad front against terrorism on the basis of the UN Charter, with the support of all on Earth who are opposed to terrorism, including the army of Syria, the Kurdish militia, and the armed forces of the Syrian patriotic opposition,» Lavrov said. «The air force of the Russian Federation, at the request of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic, is contributing to the completion of this task». «Only Syrian-led inclusive dialogue can put an end to untold suffering in Syria», the Minister added stressing that Syria should remain a secular, unified, and multi-ethnic country.
The accord was hailed as a major step toward bringing peace to Syria, where a civil war has killed millions and sent thousands of refugees fleeing into other nations. «It's going to be uphill», said U.N. Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. «It will be complicated. But it will be possible».
Summing it all up - the resolution does three things, which internationalize efforts to seek a political solution in Syria. It endorses the 17-member ISSG (the International Syria Support Group) as the main body dealing with the Syria peace process; validates the peace plan agreed to by the ISSG in Vienna last month, including a ceasefire between the regime and opposition in six months and talks leading to drafting a new constitution; and gives the United Nations a leading role in working with the regime and opposition on negotiating a ceasefire and drafting a constitution, which officials said is aimed at putting an international stamp on the peace process. The US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran were brought together to agree on an international document after a series of meetings in Vienna and elsewhere over the past three months – the diplomatic process that many had believed would never get off the ground.
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It won’t be a bed of roses, but rather a tall order. There remain sharp disagreements to be reconciled between the American and Russian positions, and huge uncertainty about what the plan will mean on the ground. A dizzying array of armed forces have left Syria in ruins, killed 250,000 (some sources say more than 300 000) and driven four million refugees out of the country, threatening to destabilize the nations where they are seeking new homes. A cease-fire in Syria poses its own challenges. It is not expected to apply to all parts of the country — certainly not to the vast areas held by the Islamic State — and the idea of sending United Nations-sanctioned observers to monitor it seems almost unthinkable. 
The resolution leaves open the question of whether other rebel groups can be designated as terrorist organizations and excluded from the cease-fire agreement. It embraces an effort led by Jordan to figure out which groups should receive that designation. Mr. Lavrov hinted at the disagreement there, saying it was «inadmissible to divide terrorists between good and bad ones».
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There is a long road to go and success depends of the ability to compromise and act together. The UN has laid down a foundation launching the international effort to tackle the problem that many believe to be intractable. This is challenge the world community can meet having joined together.