As far as Arab and European countries and the United States are concerned, Russia has been anything but helpful in Syria. Three United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Syrian president Bashar Assad were vetoed by the Russians who have continued to sell military equipment to his regime.
Secretary of State John Kerry sought to snap that streak when he traveled to Moscow last week and, to his credit, succeeded in one respect: getting the Russians to publicly support a transitional government in Syria.
Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov both reaffirmed their commitment to the Geneva communiqué that the two powers signed in June of last year. It called for negotiations between the Assad regime and opposition in pursuit of an interim government.
Kerry was so upbeat about his most recent trip to Russia that he speculated that his new Syria initiative could begin in early June and said that a tremendous amount of preparation had already been done.
Yet to the frustration of both the Americans and Russians, pledging allegiance to the Geneva accord and the theory of a transitional government in Syria is premised on the assumption that negotiations can stop the shooting and resolve the civil war. Despite both sides in the conflict deploying evermore brutal violence, the European Union and the United States still seem to hope that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that, however horrible the situation in Syria may be, its ramifications can be contained within Syria’s borders.
The Syrians who are doing the fighting and dying do not appear to be viewing the Kerry-Lavrov initiative the same way. Grotesque scenes of massacres along sectarian lines, the execution of prisoners of war and the mutilation of bodies do not suggest that there is much room for meaningful talks.
There have been no goodwill gestures from either the Assad regime or opposition umbrella groups besides public interest in the diplomatic route. As much as Russia, the United Nations and the United States might like to see a negotiated settlement, the protagonists are nowhere near agreement on the issues that are so important to ending the carnage: whether Assad can be a part of the equation; what Syria will look like in the future; how transitional justice for war crimes will be meted out; who will be allowed to serve in a transitional administration.
The reality is that the fractious rebel movement on the ground, combined with President Assad’s determination to prevail and the radicalization that is taking place along sectarian and ideological lines, is not an environment that suits diplomacy well.
Diplomacy can only succeed if one side is convinced that it will lose or if the combatants are convinced that they have more to gain from talking than fighting. Since both Assad and his opponents are going for broke and engaging in even more horrific human rights abuses, the compromise that Kerry and Lavrov are talking about, however commendable, is unlikely to yield anything concrete.