U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi today, renewing a diplomatic push to end Syria’s civil war.
The two sides failed to break their impasse over how to address the crisis, though a State Department official said on condition of anonymity that other U.S. and Russian officials will follow up in the coming days. Brahimi, speaking after the meeting in Dublin tonight, said the three hadn’t “taken any sensational decisions” while agreeing to “work together to see how we can find creative ways” to end the fighting.
Clinton and Lavrov have discussed Syria several times in recent months without coming to agreement and word of the hastily arranged meeting organized by Brahimi raised hopes that the U.S. and Russia might be closer to compromising over the best path to halt 21 months of violence in the Middle Eastern country. Clinton and Lavrov were both in Dublin for a gathering of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The meeting came on the heels of warnings to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the U.S., NATO and Russia this week against unleashing its stockpile of chemical weapons. There were also signs this week that the U.S. is bolstering its support for the Syrian opposition and that Russia, a stalwart ally of Syria’s and longtime backer of Assad and his late father, may be moderating its support.
The U.S. and Russia have been at an impasse over how much pressure to exert to end the fighting between Assad’s government and rebels. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 41,000 people have died since an uprising inspired by other Arab Spring movements began in March 2011.
The U.S. has pushed for a UN Security Council resolution that would impose consequences, such as economic sanctions, for a failure to end the conflict and begin a planned transition to a unity government. Russia has blocked UN sanctions and thwarted efforts to pressure Assad under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could theoretically authorize the use of force. Russia also has blocked U.S., European and Arab League efforts to disqualify Assad and his inner circle from any transitional government.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, speaking today in Washington at a conference sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned that the longer the “violence continues, the more extremists benefit.” Ford cautioned, however, that the conflict is “a Syrian revolution, not an American war.”
Clinton told journalists today in Dublin before her meeting with Lavrov and Brahimi that the U.S. has “made it very clear what our position is with regard to chemical weapons.” She said she would discuss that issue “and many other aspects of what needs to be done in order to end the violence and begin that transition.”
At the same time, the State Department is moving to designate one Syrian rebel group as a foreign terrorist organization because of evidence it has ties to al-Qaeda, said two U.S. officials who described the move on the condition of anonymity because it hasn’t happened yet. Members of the group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Support Front, have participated in some recent successful attacks on government forces.
The officials said that while the blacklisting may hamper some rebel operations and underline the split between secular and Muslim extremist rebel factions, it’s necessary to prevent aid from going to allies of al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, foreign ministers attending a two-day meeting of the 28-member NATO alliance this week approved the deployment of a missile shield along Turkey’s 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria. Satellite images have shown Syria may be readying chemical-weapons stockpiles for deployment.
UN Security Council members and Arab states on June 30 backed a plan for a Syrian transition government that, under pressure from Russia and China, didn’t directly address Assad’s fate. The document, signed in Geneva, also added a Russia-backed provision opposing “further militarization of the conflict,” a criticism of Arab nations’ arms shipments to the opposition.
Russia, along with China, has vetoed three Security Council resolutions intended to pressure Assad’s government to halt the violence.
Yesterday, Clinton said the newly constituted Syrian opposition coalition is moving closer to winning U.S. support, hinting at possible recognition for the group. The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is trying to raise $60 billion for reconstruction of the war-damaged nation if Assad is deposed, will attend a Dec. 12 meeting of the Friends of Syria in Marrakesh, Morocco. The coalition already has won recognition from the European Union and Gulf Arab countries.
“Now that there is a new opposition formed, we are going to be doing what we can to support that opposition,” Clinton told reporters in Brussels yesterday. At next week’s meeting, “we will explore with like-minded countries what we can do to try to bring this conflict to an end.”
International efforts to mediate a peace agreement have stumbled over whether Assad must leave power before a transition can begin. The June communique from foreign ministers in Geneva declared a “firm timetable” for actions without setting any dates or deadlines.
Brahimi told the Security Council last week that Syria will become a “failed state” without a political solution to the crisis. A peace plan based on the Geneva agreement can succeed, he said.
“The building blocks for a political process to end the crisis in Syria already exist” in the roadmap outlined by the Action Group for Syria in Geneva, Brahimi said on Nov. 30.
Lavrov told Clinton in September at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vladivostok that Russia still sees the Geneva plan as the best chance for a peace deal that’s not imposed on the Syrian people by outside powers. The U.S. says the proposal is meaningless without penalties attached if the parties don’t comply.
The Geneva accord won’t work “if it doesn’t have teeth,” Clinton said on Sept. 9.