U.S., Russia grapple for common ground on Syria transition
June 6th, 2012
04:07 PM ET

U.S., Russia grapple for common ground on Syria transition

By Jill Dougherty and Tim Lister

It's almost a throwback to the Cold War: a toxic mixture of distrust, weapons shipments and chess moves to preserve spheres of influence. But that's how Russia and the United States have been maneuvering over Syria.

Moscow's latest gambit is to propose a regional solution that hinges on Iran and Turkey helping implement the six-point peace plan developed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  The timing of the initiative is no accident.  It was announced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Beijing just as the U.S.-led Friends of Syria group gathered in Washington to plan further steps to isolate and ultimately remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Turkey for an informal gathering in Turkey of the so-called "Friends of Syria."

The proposal is similar to one the Washington Post reports Annan will propose this week to the United Nations Security Council, which could include bringing Iran to the table.

"The goal of such a meeting - unlike the so-called Friends of Syria meeting devoted to supporting the Syrian National Council and its radical demands - would be for all external players to agree, honestly and without double standards, to fulfill Kofi Annan's plan," Lavrov said.

The inclusion of Iran on Lavrov's list has not gone down well with the Obama administration.  Clinton said it was "a little hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad's regime's assault on its people."

That would depend on each government pushing the Syrian group(s) over which it has influence toward the negotiating table, Lavrov said.

A Russian diplomatic source said, "When we are told, 'Push Assad; he should do one, two, three,' we say, 'Look, we push Assad, but who will push the other side?' And here again, we're like talking to nobody, because every country is saying, 'We're not controlling the opposition; we don't know those guys.' "

But Clinton admits, almost nothing seems to be working to stop the violence.

“This is such a problematic issue, because we don’t have the unanimity of the United Nations Security Council, we don’t have the unanimity of the Arab League,” she said in an interview with Georgian Public Broadcaster in Batumi, Georgia Wednesday.  “We don’t have any international recognized group that knows exactly what the right thing to do is because Syria could fall into an even more horrible state of violence with many more people at risk of being killed, injured, and displaced.  We’re all trying to avoid that, but we’re also trying to stop Assad and his regime from continuing their brutal assault on their own people.”

In order for the Russian proposal to work each government would have to push the Syrian group(s) over which it has influence toward the negotiating table, Lavrov said.

Clinton said Wednesday “It’s deeply regrettable that Assad has not been pressured to step down.”

The Russian initiative is probably aimed at blunting criticism that it is solely interested in keeping al-Assad in power, regardless of the bloodshed. Nearly 10,000 people have been killed in more than a year of violence.

There is no suggestion that Russia is ready to support - yet - a change of leadership in Syria. Al-Assad is Moscow's last ally in the region. Syria buys most of its weaponry from Russia and provides it in return with its only naval base in the Mediterranean. But they may be losing patience with al-Assad.

"There is real anger toward Assad in Moscow because of the way he has handled the situation, but there is also a sense that although he may be stupid and a butcher, 'he is ours,' " said George Lopez, professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute.

"There is also confusion about his intentions: Will Assad die in a bunker, or can he shoot his way out of this? When do they turn off the flow of ammunition and military supplies?"

The Russians "are worried about losing their influence in the region, but they are also worried about backing a butcher," Lopez adds.

"They don't want to see the EU and U.S. emerge as the hero, as they did with the Libyan resistance, but nor do they want to cave in to U.S.-European preferences."

Lopez says the Russians want to keep the Syrian crisis out of the U.N. Security Council as far as possible. In that, they are joined by China, keen as always to deter any interference in the internal affairs of another state. In a joint declaration after the Russia-China summit Wednesday, the two governments declared that they "decisively speak out against attempts to resolve the Syrian crisis through external force as well as forcing, including in the U.N. Security Council, a line of changing political regimes."

Such a declaration is a line in the sand as some members of the Arab League and the United States talk about action against Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which would entail global sanctions and could ultimately authorize the use of force.

Lopez said, "It is palpable at the United Nations that Russia will not accept another Libya, watching the European Union and the U.S. use sanctions as a springboard to military force. When Russia agreed to the U.N. resolution to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, they thought it was the ceiling, but it turned out to be the floor."

But there is some common ground. Both Russia and the United States say they support the Annan peace plan, though U.S. officials are skeptical that it can succeed. And they share a common goal: to prevent a sectarian meltdown in Syria that spills into neighboring states.
A Russian diplomatic source said that the positions of Russia and the United States "are getting closer, but the situation on the ground is not."

"In small details, we are getting to a more realistic understanding of what can be done and should be done, but where we differ is how we assess the situation on the ground. That's the big issue."

Even with the Houla massacre, the source said, Russia and the U.S. "disagree 100%." Washington blames it on militias supported by allies of al-Assad, but Moscow says the regime had nothing to do with it.

Now, according to one European diplomat, the question is whether they can find some common ground that would start a transition in Syria, with al-Assad stepping down as the consequence of such a transition, not as a precondition. The Russian source, who spoke on background because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the U.S. and Russia agreed that the political process in Syria can be started "without preconditioning Assad's departure" and that "this means that somehow the opposition will talk with the government."

But, the source added, "We're in this game of angels and demons, but ... we understand there are no angels there. But when we come to different capitals, in Europe and in the U.S., we hear 'No, the opposition are angels, and the other side are demons.' "

Both the White House and State Department have made positive noises this week about Russia being part of a transition plan.

"We've been very clear about our view that Russia can and should play a constructive role on Syria in bringing about the political transition in Syria that is so necessary," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

The European diplomat says it is critical that serious groundwork is done ahead of the G-20 summit on June 18-19, which will be the first opportunity for the newly reinstalled President Vladimir Putin (who stayed away from G-8) to broker some sort of way forward with Western powers.

soundoff (55 Responses)
  1. Alison

    If Assad is forcibly deposed who will take over? There are several rebel factions..which one is the right one to back? It is also good to keep in mind that most of these 'unsuitable' leaders in the region have been put into power by western nations...outside meddling has caused these problems..how on earth will more meddling make it better?

    June 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  2. psap1

    China and Russia have blood on their hands undermining efforts to stem the Crime Against Humanity in Syria. Shame.Shame.Shame.

    June 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
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    June 7, 2012 at 6:01 am | Reply
    • Nagunde

      There is also the credibility of the acescurs, which isn’t worth s*** given the frequency with which they accuse Israel of every wrong in the region. team pro israel everything (not here of course) likes bragging around the myth mossad is some whippersnapper awesomeness can do anything intel agency until it gets accused of something. then it's oh no, you're all conspiracy nuts. maybe you'd be more comfortable w/ hell no it couldn't have been israel, they're friggin incompetent'. take your pick.

      August 3, 2012 at 12:59 am | Reply
  4. Brian

    this is sad... look for common ground in such a case is just ridiculous. Forget current interest, people's lives can't be replaced, but business partners can always be replaced. To do anything other than beat down current government is just wrong. The cost of their hesitance will be their soul. The deaths are now on their heads as well for doing nothing.

    June 7, 2012 at 1:02 am | Reply
    • Joe

      I saw those cartoons, and I didn't see any Mohammad reeprsentations. Arabs, perhaps, Muslims, certainly. Why would I think the guy with the bomb in the turban is Mohammad? Did I miss something?I've heard that the real story here is Denmark is slated to chair the Security Council when the referral of the Iranian nuclear situation comes up. It's all about intimidation.

      August 1, 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply
  5. rickp530

    Innocent women and children are dying. If Iran went in, the rebels would be wiped out. Iran would swear up and down that it was terrorists. Syria is a Muslim nation and at civil war. Other Muslim nations, other than Iran, need to step in and resolve this matter. The United Nations including the United States and Russia need to stay out of this war.

    June 7, 2012 at 12:30 am | Reply
    • sez

      "They don't want to see the EU and U.S. emerge as the hero, as they did with the Libyan resistance, but nor do they want to cave in to U.S.-European preferences." lol of course the US is a hero. I mean if someone invaded your country you would consider them a hero. Men love boots on the ground. Talking about turning inside out Russia. You only wish you had this many enemies. Russians have a strange sense of humor no doubt. Most Syrians love the fact you are grappling over their future. They can't wait to see what you decide. You might want to be careful during the presentation phase however.

      June 7, 2012 at 11:34 am | Reply
    • Stan Saibt

      Rik is that you brother???

      June 7, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  6. magneticink

    So Putin (who stole the election) and his kleptocrats wants to get Iran (who vowed to eliminate the Jewish state) involved in Annan's (I pulled this out of my butt) Plan to allow Russia to maintain it's sphere of influence (supporting the #1 exporter of terrorism Iran) which will push Assad out even as more women and children get butchered.

    June 7, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  7. Falloutboy

    Their all clowns in this pic...... its these faces 5 people leading the way for mankind!!! WHAT A JOKE THAT SO FEW DECIDE FOR THE 6 BILLION PEOPLE..........WAR OIL MONEY.....

    June 6, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Reply
    • joyful

      no cynic, no conspiracy freak, but just retired history teacher of 39 years, world history. Kept up with things. Maybe somebody is right- 20 people make the decisions for the whole world. makes sense to me. :) :( George Orwell might have been off by a few years, but he was spot on about the future.We are moving rapidly into that Orwellian world. Oil dictates foreign policy and money dictates domestic. Just my opinion.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  8. Hillary

    The US has no plan for post Assad in Syria and they don't really care about syrian people or democracy in the region. Their only goal is to get rid of Assad to isolate Iran in the region because that is what their Master wants in Tel Aviv. Obama doesn't have balls to attack Iran but he is trying to please his master Netnayahu by trying to remove Assad anyway he can.
    The Houla incident is another " Gulf of Tonkin" all over again carried out by Saudis on behalf of CIA & Mossad.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • r

      that place gonna kick off ww 3. what gigantic mess we will be lucky if theres no world war in the next 12 months.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Reply
      • Stan Saibt

        San Bernardine,,,77

        June 7, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • joyful

      how about a bit more anti Antisemitism there ? The last thing we need is to get involved in a third war especially one as complicated as the Syrian conflict- too much sectarian violence, religious violence. Hard to know who are the bad guys, who are the good guys. Been there, done that. Please not again. Having watched the Middle east for over 60 years I repeat my true belief- they will have to fix it themselves.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
      • Hillary

        AntiSemitism ?? Did I say anything against Jews ?? You're crazy man.

        June 7, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  9. Steve

    Self distruction. What a shame.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  10. Jay

    If Russia wanted to look good in this and come out the better for itself and the view of the world then it would send in it's own forces to quell the problem. Get rid of Assad, keep their military and strategic initiatives AND show the world their current military prowess not to mention the Russian public. The world would be stunned if the Russians marched into Syria as Peace Keepers. Alas, the Russians care not for such things, their ideology cares only about Russia and Russians, they are narrow minded like Horse blinders. They cannot piece together a big picture and see the outcome, they are not risk takers and thus they fail at world image and power.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      Ha ha ha... If Russia wants to look good, it should act like US? You sure either kidding, or are delusional! "March into Syria..." You get me crying! That is stunning piece of crap man!

      June 6, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • LesT

      Russia wants to show its "friends" that they have their back. Stepping away from Assad this early would damage Russia's standing with other dictators in the world. Just like we ignored many atrocities because it was not politically convenient. Most recently we allowed Bahrain demonstrations to be subdued because we had Saudis back.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
    • Jim Carry

      US playing dangerous game here and they still have a time to step down.China and Russia will not allow to do with Syria what "Friends of Syria " want , this is Not Libya, someone has to stop playing this revolution game taken millions of people life .

      June 6, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
    • joyful

      Jay, sadly the Russians have never even cared for their own people. I say this as a true Russophile for over 40 years. That is a wonderful dream you have there, but it won't happen, sadly. Just my opinion. But my opinion comes from 50 years of studying Russia and teaching world history in public education.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
  11. Kalzone

    Why work at all with Putin? He's a crook and a dictator. Shame on any leader that agrees on any aspect of "Their" national security. This, from a liberal in San Francisco

    June 6, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • Jim Carry

      A-a-a Liberal, then everything is clear

      June 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  12. Axl Rose

    Thankfully we have a bold Campaigner-in-Chief providing strong leadership in foreign policy.

    June 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  13. The Obama poll boosters come in the form of leaks .

    gee all these faces in the pic above and obama is once again hidding behind a woman .

    June 6, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  14. Andrey

    ...."They don't want to see the EU and U.S. emerge as the hero, as they did with the Libyan resistance,...." That professor Lopez is a joke. He should spend more time on studying Krocs of his and less talk about things he does not understand.
    Annan's plan was designed to fail. It was a minor diversion. So Russia is trying to turn the joke back on jokers, nothing more. The fighting will drag on: that is the strategy!

    June 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      P.S. And I mean US strategy in the first place. Just let them fight! They do not want to see any winner emerging from this conflict! They do not have any friends there! That is a workable approach to very unfortunate situation.

      June 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
      • Brenda

        Who cares? What in the article do you diasrgee with? It's clear that conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel are rampant in the Arab world, mostly because the media is not free and people do not trust it. Sorry if it offends your 9/11-truth-movement sensibilities. The Arabs have an excuse. Their societies are dictatorships. Those of you in the West, however, are just plain nuts.

        August 3, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • joyful

      The U N has no teeth.That is its problem.

      June 6, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply

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