WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia signaled disagreement over whether it was too soon to bring the Syrian parties into the talks, as the UN’s Syria envoy held a flurry of meetings to try to sustain momentum for renewed international diplomacy to end the Syrian war. The continued deep divisions on the way forward on Syria suggest the parties should aim to stop the Syria fighting first before trying to reach a political solution for Syria, which could take years, a veteran US diplomat urged.
If you try to get a political settlement first, “the fighting will go on for years,” veteran diplomat James Dobbins, who served as Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Al-Monitor.
“Everyone agrees that there is an urgency to have a common understanding on how to end this war … and end it politically,” UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said at a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Nov. 4, noting he had traveled to Damascus following the summit of 17 Syria contact group nations, including archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, in Vienna on Oct. 30.
“We look forward to concrete and constructive preparation of the next meeting of what will be the contact group on Syria,” de Mistura said, noting he will travel shortly to Washington.
Russia said the parties are seeking to come to a consensus on which Syrian opposition representatives should be included in talks with the regime that de Mistura is seeking to convene.
“The issue … is to clarify who belongs to this opposition, which is dubbed moderate and which should be a party to the negotiations, which de Mistura and his team are preparing,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Nov. 4.
While Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced Nov. 3 that Russia intended to host a dialogue of Syrian government and opposition representatives in Moscow next week, the State Department said it thought such a meeting was “premature.”
“We believe that the sequence of steps following up on Vienna still needs to be worked out,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told journalists at the State Department on Nov. 3. “I think it’s premature for members of the Syrian opposition to meet right now.”
“We think that there’s a time and a place when the opposition groups will be represented, but we’re not there yet,” Trudeau continued. “We’re not ready for those discussions yet until the international community can reach a greater consensus on the way forward.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, returning from Central Asia to Washington, met with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on a stopover in London on Nov. 3 to discuss “next steps” on Syria, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, meanwhile, was in Iran on Nov. 4 for consultations in which Iranian officials reiterated that it is Iran’s position that Syrians should determine whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stays or goes.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said at a meeting with Mekdad in Tehran on Nov. 4, “We believe that Syrians should decide about their future and their fate, and the others at most can have a facilitating role in the Syrian political process and help settlement of the crisis.” Iran had “announced our positions in a transparent way” at the Oct. 30 Vienna conference, Zarif said.
Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said the Vienna communique from Oct. 30 was even more vague than the Geneva I communique from 2012 on what should be the political process going forward, suggesting the parties are very far apart.
While the 2012 Geneva communique “had a very rough road map that included a sequence, an order of what would occur in what order,” Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor, “by contrast, the Oct. 30, 2015, statement out of Vienna had only principles, including cease-fire, elections and a new constitution, but no guidance on sequencing. So judging from the output, Vienna so far hasn't produced much new.”
While the presence of both the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers in Vienna on Oct. 30 was new, “they seem to be far, far apart,” Ford said.
“It is significant that the Saudis are still speaking of military victory over Assad if the political process won't move him,” Ford said. “Riyadh seems to believe that the Syrian government really is losing the war of attrition, and if it believes this, then its analysis is sharply at variance with the US official position that no military victory is possible in Syria.”
During the Oct. 30 meeting in Vienna, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that Saudi support will continue to the Syrian opposition and will escalate "if no political solution is reached soon,” a source briefed on the Vienna talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor. Zarif was said to be upset with that, and they had a small back and forth, the source said.
The divisions on a way forward suggest the international parties should try to end the fighting in Syria first before trying to work out a long-term political solution on Syria, Dobbins said.
“As a realist, you can do one of two things,” Dobbins, who helped negotiate the composition of the post-Taliban Afghan government with Zarif at the Bonn conference in 2001, told Al-Monitor in an interview Nov. 3. “You can get a political settlement first and then stop the fighting, or you can stop the fighting and [then] get a political settlement,” Dobbins, now with the Rand Corporation, said.
If the parties get a cease-fire, the process for getting the factions to agree on a future Syrian state could take years, during which “Syria will be effectively partitioned,” Dobbins wrote for USA Today on Oct. 30. “Assad or his successor would continue to govern the regime's currently held territory. … The Kurds and the Sunni Arab insurgents would enjoy similar authority — protection and externally provided oversight in their areas.”