Framework Of Syria Peace Talks Divides Interested Parties

A long delayed Syrian peace conference is to begin in Switzerland on Wednesday. In 2012, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart issued a joint call for talks between the Syrian government and the opposition to reach agreement on a transitional government with "full executive authority." For the U.S., that means Syria's president would be out of power. But the Russians don't see it that way, arguing only the Syrian people can decide on their leader.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

After a weekend of drama surrounding peace talks for Syria, it appears nothing changed. The UN secretary-general invited Iran to join those talks. It was a big deal because Iran backs Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

INSKEEP: But then Iran was disinvited for not accepting the basic idea of these talks. The United States insists the Syrian talks are supposed to create a transitional government designed to ease Assad from power. Now the talks are scheduled to go forward as before with the same people at the table. The United States will take part.

MONTAGNE: And so will Syria's ally, Russia. The Russians and Americans agreed on a framework for these talks, but that does not mean they always agree.

This morning we'll report on two nations seeking to influence a brutal war. First, here's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: From Secretary of State John Kerry's point of view, the goal of the peace conference is clear: to implement a deal that world powers reached back in 2012 in Geneva.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: So for anyone seeking to rewrite this history or to muddy the waters, let me state one more time what Geneva II is about. It is about establishing a process essential to the formation of a transition governing body, with full executive powers established by mutual consent.

KELEMEN: More than 30 countries have backed the Geneva I communique, Kerry says, and that includes Russia.

KERRY: And since Russia is one of the primary benefactors of the Assad regime, we believe the Russians have a high stake in helping to make certain that Assad understands exactly what the parameters of this negotiation are.

KELEMEN: But the U.S. and Russia never really agreed on what the Geneva communique meant. The Atlantic Council's Fred Hof was an advisor to the State Department at the time it was signed and remembers the Russians saying it had nothing to do with Assad.

FRED HOF: That, of course, is nonsense. It makes a mockery of the text. If the Syrian president is exempted from this process, then what in the world would it mean when you say that the transitional governing body is exercising full executive power?

KELEMEN: The U.S. has tried all sorts of approaches with the Russians, first trying to shame them into using their influence with Assad to end the conflict. Matthew Rojansky, who runs the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says Kerry seems to be trying a friendlier approach, speaking often with his Russian counterpart.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: The idea of communicating with a player that has obvious leverage - and I'd argue a fair bit of knowledge that we'd love to have access to - is a lot smarter than moral bludgeoning. Moral bludgeoning just, as a general rule, never works with the Russians.

KELEMEN: And he thinks part of Kerry's approach is to let the Russians look good.

ROJANSKY: Kerry was a big part of teeing up Vladimir Putin for a victory, for a diplomatic victory that's gotten him a lot of mileage on the chemical weapons issue.

KELEMEN: Last year's U.S.-Russia deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons was a victory for everyone, says Fred Hof, the former State Department advisor. But he adds there was a downside.

HOF: Unfortunately, and this is one of the many unintended consequences of American policy, such as it is, Bashar al-Assad interpreted all this as giving him a permission slip to do anything else he wanted to the Syrian population, as long as he did it without chemicals.

KELEMEN: The U.S. now accuses the regime of using starvation as a weapon of war. Kerry has been trying to appeal to Moscow on humanitarian grounds to help ease the suffering. But Hof thinks Washington should keep in mind that Russia is more worried about the rise of extremism than about Assad's crimes.

HOF: Russia's real interests would be to facilitate genuine political transition in Syria, so that there is a fighting chance to clean up the al-Qaida and foreign jihadist presence in that country. Bashar al-Assad is a magnet for that presence.

KELEMEN: And Assad has been a disappointment to Russia, says Rojansky of the Kennan Institute.

ROJANSKY: For all the weapons that have been provided, for all the defense that the Russians have played on his behalf, he hasn't actually defeated the rebellion. And in fact he's allowing the growth of a cancerous Islamist force, in Russia's view, which may actually threaten Russia's interests.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry says Assad has been funding extremists to make them look like a problem only he can solve. No one, Kerry says, should be fooled by that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: And I'm Corey Flintoff in Moscow.

Ahead of the Geneva talks, Russia emphasized its continued support for the Assad regime as Sergei Lavrov met with his Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem. The Russians say that they have never bought into the idea that a transitional government meant that Assad would step down.

They say it was never an explicit part of the Geneva One agreement in July of 2012. In an interview with a German television channel, ARD, almost a year ago, Sergei Lavrov says it was only later that the U.S. and its allies began trying to persuade Russia to change its position.

SERGEI LAVROV: And then we ask what kind of change do you want, well, you must tell Assad that he must go. And we answer that Assad's fate must be in the hands of the Syria people, but apart from this in purely pragmatic terms, he's not going to listen to anyone.

FLINTOFF: Russians stress that Assad is still president, finishing out a seven year term that ends this summer. Irina Zvyagelskaya, a professor of history at Russia's Institute of Oriental Studies, points out that before the outbreak of the civil war, most Western governments treated Assad's regime as the legitimate government of Syria.

IRINA ZVYAGELSKAYA: They were recognized by the international community as legal. And by the way, Assad, whether we like it or dislike it, and we know what kind of elections he had, still he's legal.

FLINTOFF: And that, from the Russian point of view, means no outside force has the right to depose him. Zvyagelskaya says the deal that led to the removal of Syria's chemical weapons gave Assad even more legitimacy because it made him a partner to a landmark international agreement. Russia says the agreement made at the first Geneva conference, that the transitional government would be chosen by mutual consent, means that the Syrian regime must give its approval to an interim leader, which will likely mean that it will choose Assad.

Russians have little patience for the idea that Assad is a magnet for jihadis in Syria and that removing him would somehow create an opportunity to fight and defeat Islamist radicals. Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Institute, says the Russians believe the real attraction for jihadis is the chaotic situation that seems to offer opportunities to gain power.

The Russians, Trenin says...

DMITRI TRENIN: Clearly saw the danger of the uprising in Syria morphing into a civil war and the civil war acting as a magnet for all the unsavory characters around the Middle East.

FLINTOFF: Trenin says that the Russians have seen their worst fears realized by the emergence of various radical Islamist groups, including al-Qaida, which are now fighting both the Syrian regime and the more moderate groups in the opposition. Russia is very sensitive to the threat from Islamist militants because it has its own large Muslim populations and an ongoing insurgency in the South that has taken thousands of lives.

Trenin says the realities of the Syrian situation have actually brought the U.S. and Russian negotiators closer because both sides now realize that the Islamists pose a threat to both the Assad regime and the Western-backed Syrian opposition. He knows that the Russians are talking with moderate elements of the opposition because they realize that the moderates are militarily weaker than the radicals, but politically stronger.

TRENIN: As long as the war rages on, the very fact of the fighting gives more boost to the more radical elements. Once you stop the war, once you start a political process, you boost chances for moderate elements.

FLINTOFF: And if those moderate elements show up at the Geneva talks, they may be a force that Russia will be willing to work with. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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