A meeting took place between US President Barack Obama and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Mexican resort town of Los Cabos on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Meanwhile, Russia is continuing with its organization of another international conference on the Syrian crisis. The importance of the meeting between the two leaders has been amplified by the latest developments and increased level of violence in Syria, which culminated in the suspension of the UN’s observation mission [on June 16].
Russia’s diplomatic efforts — toward both the East and West — have revolved around a constant adherence to the peace plan initiated by the UN and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan. Lately, this plan seems to have been in grave danger of collapsing. According to the statements of a Russian diplomatic source to An-Nahar in Beirut, all of Russia’s diplomatic efforts regarding the Syrian crisis revolve around series of meetings that Moscow has called and will continue to call for. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Tehran last week, which was followed by telephone consultations with Annan, was a part of these efforts. The continued nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group in Moscow will also have to take into account the developments in Syria.
If the Russian proposal to hold a meeting on Syria, with Iran included, were to succeed, it would have to overcome a series of “details” that still differentiate the West’s view from Russia’s.
The Russian source summarizes these issues as follows:
- Disagreement over the meeting place. It is no secret that the Russians proposed Moscow as a meeting locale at first, but Geneva is now being considered a possible location after negotiations. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius clearly alluded to Geneva when he suggested “a platform similar to that of the Security Council.”
- Disagreement over Iran’s participation in the meeting. Russia clarified that the participant list had not yet been finalized, and that “any discussion will remain incomplete in the absence of any country with influence in the matter.” The West continues to reject Iran’s participation at a time when Moscow insists on the importance of gathering all factions with influence on the events in Syria, which includes neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran.
- Moscow insists on excluding the Syrian [opposition] factions from participating in the first phase of meetings. It denied that its refusal to include them aimed to extending the regime’s life. The Russian source repeatedly asserted that his country wanted to reach a quick and peaceful political solution to the crisis.
- The last round of French and Russian bickering reflects these countries’ differences regarding the conference’s agenda. Russia insisted that discussions be limited to stopping the violence and organizing talks. On the other hand, Western sources, particularly from the US and France, signaled that the discussions had reached the point where the “post-Bashar al-Assad era” could be discussed. This was quickly denied by Russia.
- It is no secret that Russo-Western negotiations are taking place on two different levels; the first has to do with the importance of reaching a political solution. The second is the security-military level, which has entailed reciprocal accusations of giving military assistance to both parties of the conflict. While Russian diplomats see this last factor as “an additional reason for the urgent need to bring all the foreign factions together,” it nonetheless continues to remind others of the longstanding Russo-Syrian cooperation in defensive matters. What’s more, other factions’ have also attempted to provide armed groups in Syria with advanced weaponry.
Efforts to organize an international conference were the focus of a recent meeting between Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour and Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin. The latter has highlighted that Lebanon could potentially benefit from attending the international conference.
The Russian side also clarified that no official invitations have been sent to anybody — including Lebanon — for the conference that is scheduled for the end of the month. Russia is waiting until a final agreement can be reached on the conference’s location, content and sponsor, which may turn out to be the UN. The Russian diplomatic source also conveyed that Mansour had a positive attitude toward the proposal, but stressed that Lebanon alone would decide on whether to participate or not.
In the meantime, the Russians have made it clear that there are three things that they will categorically reject: an invoking of the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, arming international observers and applying international sanctions. It should be noted however, that no positive progress has been made in unifying the Syrian opposition; its unification must be achieved before it may begin discussions with the regime.