U.S., Russia Fail to Bridge Syria Gap, Risking Peace Talks

Updated on
  • Kerry, Lavrov still disagree on which groups are `terrorist'
  • UN envoy says talks are likely to miss a Jan. 25 start date

The top U.S. and Russian diplomats have failed to bridge divisions over which belligerents in Syria’s five-year civil war should be labeled “terrorist,” a dispute that’s holding up the start of peace talks.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov couldn’t agree during three hours of discussions Wednesday in Zurich on who’s allowed a seat at the table at UN-sponsored talks between the Syrian government and opposition. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, said in an interview with CNN from Davos that a Jan. 25 deadline for talks to begin was likely to be missed.

“You need a political miracle to have the meeting take place, let alone have serious negotiations,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. “Major differences remain between Russia and the U.S.”

Lavrov said Russia still considers two radical Islamist militias backed by Gulf states and Turkey -- Ahrar as-Sham and Army of Islam -- as terrorist groups that can’t be part of the Syrian negotiations. “We expect our arguments to be taken on board,” he told reporters after the meeting in Zurich. “We hope the political process will start in the nearest future.”

The Syrian opposition has included a representative of Army of Islam in its delegation and is resisting Russian pressure to include Moscow-friendly groups in the talks.

More than three months of Russian airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have turned the tide of the conflict, which has killed 250,000 people and triggered Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Assad’s forces, once near defeat, seized a strategic town on the Turkish border last week and are closing in on an Islamic State stronghold, also near Turkey.

“Government forces, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, have made gains and they want the talks to reflect the changing balance of power,” Gerges said. “The diplomatic settlement will reflect the power on the ground. Facts on the ground have changed.”

‘Maintaining Progress’

Kerry and Lavrov agreed on “the importance of maintaining progress toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in an e-mailed statement. Kerry pressed Russia to use its influence with the Assad regime to ensure “immediate, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all Syrians in need,” Kirby said.

The U.S., Russia and other nations agreed on a timetable to form a transitional government in Syria within six months and hold elections within a year and a half. Russia has made progress in weakening U.S. opposition to Assad standing for re-election, according to Russian and Western diplomats. While the U.S. still says Assad can’t lead Syria over the long-term, the Obama administration has backed away from insisting that he go at the start of a transition process.

‘Jihadi Menace’

The U.S. is leading a coalition to fight Islamic State, which has seized a swath of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris and Beirut in November, and the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt in October.

A growing number of European leaders “would be quietly relieved to see Syria’s ruler re-emerge in force to tamp down the jihadi menace and stem refugee flows,” said Aron Lund, who studies Syria for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But the problem is that Russia, overconfident from its recent military gains, is overplaying its hand, according to a Western diplomat in Moscow. Putin has to make some concessions to regional powers or Assad won’t be able to stop the war and rebuild the country, the diplomat said.

Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said the success of the air campaign shows it’s “realistic” for government forces to regain full control of Syria. “It’s important we keep up the momentum,” Klintsevich said by phone.

Air Campaign

The coordinator of a Syrian opposition alliance set up to participate in the peace talks said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that it won’t take part if any “third party” is invited, the Deutsche-Presse Agentur news agency reported Wednesday. Riad Hijab accused Russia of obstructing the talks by “imposing a list of names on the opposition delegation,” the DPA reported. The Army of Islam’s Mohammed Alloush is among those due to take part in the Geneva talks, the agency said, citing unidentified Syrian opposition representatives.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Tuesday said no one should dictate to the Syrian opposition who can take part in the peace talks, Al Arabiya channel reported.

The Saudi position “has hardened because of what Riyadh sees as Russia and Iran coming together to take over Syria as their prize,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics.