The US and Russia want to begin negotiations over Syria’s future next week in Geneva as originally planned, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a press conference on Wednesday after meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Zurich.
Lavrov’s comments came after days of speculation that the process might be delayed as major players in Syria’s civil war — including Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, and Saudi Arabia — continue to bicker over who should be invited to represent the opposition at the talks.
That the US appears determined to move forward with the process on the agreed-upon date — absent, five days before talks are due to begin, a set delegation to represent the rebels — looks to experts like another example of the administration “trying to kick the can down the road” when it comes to making policy decisions about Syria.
That is according to Tony Badran, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. He noted on Wednesday that, at this point, the White House “just wants to get a process going” — even if that process is not entirely substantial.
“The administration wants to see if the Russians can wrap this up,” Badran told Business Insider, referring to the outsize influence Russia gained over the conflict’s trajectory when its warplanes intervened on behalf of the government in September.
“If they can be done with this headache, great. If not, it’s not Obama’s problem. He leaves it to his successor,” Badran added. “The only thing the administration wants is to check this box and get this thing moving.”
When asked about the timetable of the talks on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed that “deadlines matter.” But he suggested it wouldn’t be “the end of the world” if the timeline slipped a few days.
“If it slips one or two days, that’s not the end of the world either,” he told reporters. “We recognise — let me put it this way. We recognise that this is a difficult process, it has been a difficult process, it will continue to be a difficult process going forward. But we have to keep the pressure on and we have to keep moving forward.”
On Thursday, Kerry said he does not anticipate a “fundamental delay” in the talks.
“When you say a delay, it may be a day or two for invitations, but there is not going to be a fundamental delay,” Kerry told reporters at the start of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Davos. “The process will begin on the 25th and they will get together and see where we are.”
Obama has consistently favoured a backseat role in negotiating an end to the nearly five-year-old civil war, instead of one that requires him to confront the Syrian regime and its backers head-on. As such, critics say he has chosen to “kick the can down the road” more often than not when faced with making policy decisions that might put him at odds with Russia and Iran.
His critics argue that Obama has been capitulating to the Russians in Syria since 2013, when he decided against launching airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in favour of a Russia-brokered agreement to have the regime’s chemical-weapons arsenal shipped out of Syria and destroyed.
Russia’s incursion into Syria in September consequently offered the Obama administration something it has sought since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011: a way to stay in the background.
Some experts — including Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies — have argued that Russia’s dominating role in the conflict was not an inevitability, but a gift from an administration that never wanted to play a leading role in the first place.
That, in turn, would explain why the White House has done little to counter Russia’s expanding political influence in the region, while steadily softening its position on Syria’s embattled leader — from “Assad must go” in 2013 to “the US is not seeking regime change” in 2015.
In September, Badran said in an interview that this shifting stance is also part of Obama’s larger strategy to keep the US in the background.
“Play for time, and let the dynamics of an ever worsening situation improve your position diplomatically. In a way, Obama and Assad are reading from the same playbook,” he said.
Four months later, the administration has yet to take meaningful action against the regime — or against Russia’s attacks on Syrian civilians and western-backed opposition groups.
The US even allowed Russia to extend an invitation to Iran — Russia’s ally in the war that has been propping up Assad for years — to participate in the last round of Syria peace talks in November.
As such, “I don’t think the administration cares that much” about who represents the opposition at Geneva, Badran said. “They gave the lead to Russia.”
That lead has evidently proven useful: America’s top general, Joseph Dunford, said Wednesday that Russian airstrikes have strengthened Assad, who “is in a better place now” than he was before Russia intervened.
In 2013, Washington may have seen an emboldened Assad as a hindrance to meaningful peace talks. But if Lavrov’s comments on Wednesday are any indication, Russia and the US now share the same short-term objective.
“We do not have any kind of thoughts about changing the beginning of the talks from January to February,” the Russian foreign minister told reporters. “This is the position of Russia and the USA.”
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