Following the Oct. 23 four-way talks in Vienna, Austria between the foreign ministers of Russia, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Obama Administration is moving cautiously forward on the creation of a platform for talks to end the Syrian war. While the initial meeting in Vienna did not achieve any breakthroughs, Secretary of State John Kerry reported back to Washington that the meeting set the basis for follow-up talks, which could be expanded to include other key regional players, including Jordan, Egypt and Iran.
One of the factors leading to Kerry’s cautiously optimistic report was the Russian acknowledgement that they made a “colossal mistake” by attacking Free Syrian Army forces during the initial phase of their bombing campaign, which began Sept. 30. While the Russians offered not-credible excuses, including that they were ignorant of the fault lines among the Syrian rebel forces, and that they were relying on the Syrian government for targeting intelligence, Kerry nevertheless concluded that Russia was prepared to make adjustments to their combat operations.
Kerry had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that no transitional government could be formed in Syria without the involvement of the Free Syrian Army, which is comprised exclusively of Syrian nationals, the vast majority of whom defected from the Syrian Army.
The Pentagon has concluded that the Russian Air Force is running up against significant fighter plane maintenance problems, due to the heavy load of sorties and the difficult climate conditions in the area. A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the US is aware of such Russian problems, but said that they are common for such deployments and are not different than difficulties that the US Air Force has encountered in Iraq. However, the maintenance challenges have not, according to the Pentagon, reduced the number of Russian sorties carried out in Syria in the past week.
Secretary of State Kerry, for the time being, has the White House backing as he further pursues the diplomatic track with Lavrov. Obama has been justifiably criticized for his failure to devise a Syria policy; however, Kerry has concluded that there are three areas of possible common interest with Moscow: The defeat of ISIS, the political negotiation for a transitional government and the eventual departure of Bashar Assad, and the maintaining of Syria’s territorial integrity.
Kerry believes that Turkey will support those three principles, largely because Syrian territorial integrity means that the US and Russia will oppose any moves to create an independent Kurdish state on Syrian, Turkish and Iraqi territory. Kurdish forces in northern Syria are engaging in ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, and this is driving Turkey to consider taking military action to prevent any Kurdish moves to independence. Any such eruption, the Obama Administration believes, would lead to chaos.
For the time being, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees a benefit to dealing primarily with the US, despite his well-known frictional relationship with President Obama. Russia does not want to bring the Europeans into the negotiations at this point, because the American-Russian bilateral work is tantamount to the US accepting a “G-2” process, led by Washington and Moscow. This, in Putin’s view, assures that Russia has a say in the future of Syria.
The next step in the very preliminary process is to secure Saudi acceptance of the two cardinal principles of talks: A unity government and territorial integrity. Kerry believes that Saudi Arabia is tied up in Yemen and will accede to the initial phase of the Geneva-3 effort.
Iran, however, poses a much greater challenge for any successful Geneva-3 process. Already, Iran is slowing down its compliance with the P5+1 agreements, and the Obama Administration is reading this as a consequence of an as-yet unresolved factional dispute within the Iranian leadership. Ultimately, for any Geneva-3 process to actually get off the ground—and that still remains a long way off—Iran will have to be included, and will have to be willing to make some serious concessions, including the ultimate departure of Assad.