Key meetings at UN General Assembly
U.S. wants Moscow's help, but is wary
The meeting between President Barack Obama and Russia President Vladimir Putin on Monday kicks off a new diplomatic push on the crisis in Syria, with the U.S. seeking to test the waters on ideas for a political transition there that would lead to the formation of a new government.
U.S. officials and diplomats said Secretary of State John Kerry hoped to use this week’s annual gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly to advance talks on the new effort, which officials stress is in its infancy.
The strategy aims to enlist Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime’s biggest military, financial and political backers, together with countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar that support Syrian opposition groups, against President Bashar al-Assad.
“I view this week as a major opportunity for any number of countries to play an important role in trying to resolve some of the very difficult issues of the Middle East,” Kerry said Saturday before meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Kerry will convene a meeting Monday with ministers from U.K., France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan to discuss Syria. No Russian ministers are expected to be there, according to a State Department official.
Efforts to solve the five-year-old Syrian civil war, which has left 200,000 dead and millions more displaced, have taken on new urgency with Russia’s military buildup in the war-torn nation and the refugee crisis that has seized Europe.
“In everyone’s mind, this is the next crisis to solve,” said a senior European diplomat. “The goal is to design a framework for talks on a political transition. But it’s going to take awhile.”
Kerry met Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in advance of the meeting between Putin and Obama. Washington is seeking more clarity on Moscow’s motives for its military buildup in Syria and its apparent military coordination with Iran.
U.S. officials acknowledge they were caught by surprise by an intelligence-sharing agreement between Russia, Iran and Iraq on combatting ISIS but downplayed its importance.
“We’re just at the beginning of trying to understand what the Russians’ intentions are in Syria, in Iraq, and try to see if there are mutually beneficial ways forward here,” a senior State Department official told reporters. “We’ve got a long way to go in that conversation.”
Putin is expected to use his address to the UN on Monday to propose a new coalition to fight ISIS. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview Sunday that Putin made clear to him his intentions “to undertake a much more serious level of combat against the terrorists in Syria.”
“And [Putin] told me that he had even spoken with Mr. Obama about this topic, and he would like to renew his commitment to the fight and the defeat of Daesh or ISIS,” he said. “President Putin said that Mr. Obama welcomed that analysis and that plan. So even previously the United States of America was made aware.”
The Obama administration said it would welcome Moscow’s help in the fight against ISIS but is concerned that Russia’s stated campaign against “terrorism” could target groups the U.S. and other Western and Middle Eastern nations consider part of the legitimate opposition in Syria.
The administration also wants to ensure that Russian military moves to shore up Assad are done in parallel with efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.
“When a country becomes more deeply engaged, that draws more responsibility for the outcome and obviously more risk,” the senior State Department official said. “Those are things that have to be considered on the Russian side.”
The long-standing U.S. and European position has been that Assad must go, but in recent weeks there appears to be an international consensus that if the Syrian military were to fall and the regime were to collapse, it would create even greater chaos for ISIS to take advantage of.
U.S. officials and diplomats, including Kerry, have left open the possibility that Assad could be part of a political transition and remain in his post for some time.
The new buzz phrase used by many leaders in recent days is that Assad has no place in Syria’s “long-term future.”
U.S. officials and diplomats said discussions center around what a transition would look like and how long Assad would remain.
“In the end, everyone agrees Assad has to go, but we are headed toward a transitional body that accepts for that transition period that Assad is going to stay,” another senior European diplomat said.
Rouhani told Amanpour that backing Syria’s “central government” is the only way to defeat ISIS, but he signaled his country may support a political transition.
“In Syria, when our first objective is to drive out terrorists and combating terrorists to defeat them, we have no solution other than to strengthen the central authority and the central government of that country as a central seat of power,” he said through an interpreter. “So I think today everyone has accepted that President Assad must remain so that we can combat the terrorists.”
“However,” he added, “as soon as this movement reaches the various levels of success and starts driving out the terrorists on a step-by-step basis, then other plans must be put into action so as to hear the voices of the opposition as well.”
After years of shunning Iran from taking part in diplomatic talks on Syria, the U.S. now sees Iran as integral to the solution. However, Iran has sent mixed signals about what role it would play in that effort.
Earlier this month, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said his country would not negotiate with the U.S. on non-nulcear issues. On Sunday, Rouhani said Iran was speaking with U.S. allies about Syria.
“Iran, with the United States, does not have any direct talks vis-a-vis Syria. But Iran simultaneously with the European Union, as well as other countries, does have talks regarding Syria,” he told Amanpour. “And those parties to the talks with Iran about Syria are in direct conversations with the United States as well. So perhaps not direct, but there are talks.”
Lavrov and Zarif are expected to meet with several European leaders to discuss Syria and with the world powers that negotiated the nuclear deal – the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and China. While the nuclear deal is expected to dominate the agenda at that session, diplomats said the talks could also address Syria.
But Iran’s involvement is unlikely to sit well with Gulf allies who have accused that country of destabilizing the region – not only in Syria, but also Lebanon and Yemen. More importantly, any diplomatic effort that keeps Assad in power, even temporarily, is likely to be a tough sell to countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which continue to push for his ouster.
“There are so many proxies in Syria. The political muscle needed can’t be provided by Russia and the U.S. alone,” another European diplomat said. “Until you bring the anti-Assad crowd who can put pressure on the opposition groups on the ground, it isn’t going to work. You need everyone on board.”