Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Is the tide turning?

Is the tide turning? Russian-American understandings on Syria give reason for cautious optimism on a political resolution to the civil war. But words still need to be matched by deeds, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The last two weeks of 2015 have seen three Security Council resolutions on the Middle East. The first, Resolution 2254, passed 18 December, deals with the political situation in Syria. The second, Resolution 2258, adopted 22 December, is focused on the humanitarian situation within Syria. The third, Resolution 2259, concerns Libya and was adopted 23 December. This article is mainly about the Syrian conflict.

Security Council Resolution 2254 is unprecedented since the Syrian conflict erupted back in 2011. The resolution came in the wake of talks John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, held in Moscow on 15-16 December with Russian President Vladimir Putin and counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The Russian-American talks centered on three main questions: namely, Syria, counterterrorism and the Ukraine.

As far as the Syrian conflict is concerned, the talks between the two great powers paved the way for the adoption of Resolution 2254, which endorses both the two Vienna Statements of 30 October and 14 November 2015, as well as the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012. As Secretary Kerry pointed out in a joint press conference in Moscow 16 December, when both the United States and Russia “pull together in the same direction, progress can be made”. In Moscow, the Americans and Russians reached an understanding that the fight against international terrorism calls for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and that without such a solution, the fight against Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front, and other terrorist groups and entities would be ineffective and inconclusive, to the detriment of the national security interests of both powers. The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, in the last two months lent utmost urgency to the fight against world terror led by the likes of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

The Russian-American talks in Moscow came after US President Barack Obama declared 14 December, from the Pentagon, that the United States is going after “ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) from their stronghold right in downtown Raqqa, to Libya, where we took out Abu Nabil, the ISIS leader there.” ISIS is the favoured acronym of the US president in reference to Islamic State, or Daesh. The US president said he had ordered more firepower to be used against the terrorist group, mentioning that Special Operations forces were already deployed in support of local forces in northern Syria. He explained that these forces along with Syrian elements are cutting off supply lines to Daesh and are tightening the “squeeze on Raqqa”, a Daesh stronghold and its so-called capital, in the northeast part of Syria.

It is interesting to note in this respect that the latest information indicates that these Special Operations forces are helping in sealing the Syrian-Iraqi border, to curtail the freedom of movement of Daesh terrorists across this frontier. If this information is correct, this should be considered a military development of great importance. It could herald the beginning of the end of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. It is no wonder that Secretary Kerry said in the joint press conference in Moscow with Lavrov that both Washington and Moscow “agree that Daesh poses a threat to all of us. It is a threat to the region and beyond it”. He further added that the United States and Russia also “agree that you can’t defeat Daesh without also de-escalating the fight in Syria, because Syria is the magnet, is the centre… of Daesh operations”.

More interesting is what Secretary Kerry had to say about Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad. He assured his Russian hosts and other allies and friends of Syria that the United States is not seeking regime change there. Nonetheless, he reaffirmed that Washington does not believe that “Assad himself has the ability to be able to lead the future Syria,” underlining that the challenge remains “creating the conditions in which an alternative can emerge,” not only to President Al-Assad, but to Daesh. From Kerry’s perspective, the Americans and the Russians want “the same outcomes. We see the same dangers. We understand the same challenges.”

How to interpret the phrase “we want the same outcomes” in the context of the Syrian conflict is anyone’s guess. But it is reassuring to note that both powers have agreed that a “united, non-sectarian Syria represents the future”, while they also agreed that “it is a future without Daesh, and we are committed to try to continue to destroy Daesh.”

Hopefully and despite differences — not only between Russia and the United States, but also among regional and Arab powers — members in the International Syria Support Group, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, will agree to the same principles. So far, such consensus cannot be not detected. And this absence does not augur well for the successful implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254, which has requested the secretary general of the UN to report back to the council on its implementation within 60 days of the date of adoption of the resolution. Let us hope that by two months from now negotiations between the Syrian government and a unified delegation representing the Syrian opposition will have begun.

But the most important thing is how durable and strong are Russian-American understandings on both the need for a political process to settle the Syrian conflict and to fight and defeat Daesh. As long as these understandings remain, the odds are greater for full implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 within the next 18 months — the timeframe cited in the resolution to achieve a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

From an Egyptian point of view, such a political resolution is a must if Egypt’s fight against terrorist groups both in Sinai and along its western borders is to be successful. A pluralistic, non-sectarian and an independent Syria is an absolute must from the perspective of Egyptian national security, long-term political stability, and future economic prosperity. There is no alternative.

The writer is a former assistant to the foreign minister.

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