Syrian peace conference: Prospects take a hit, but US says it's committed

Critics say Washington is being played by Russia, which wants to forestall a robust Western intervention in Syria. But US, insisting Russia is a 'partner,' continues planning for peace conference.

Ugarit News via AP video/AP
This image made from video and taken on Wednesday, shows an explosion from shelling in Qusair, Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Hezbollah television expressed confidence he would receive sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles, and the main Syrian opposition group announced Thursday that it will not participate in peace talks.
Rami Bleible/Reuters
Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are seen in Arjoun village near Qusair town Thursday. Syrian rebels under siege near the Lebanese border pleaded for help on Thursday against government troops and their Hezbollah allies as a confident Assad spoke of having new Russian missiles.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Hezbollah-owned Al Manar television in Damascus, Syria, Thursday.

Prospects were never bright for the Syria peace conference the US hoped to jointly sponsor with Russia in Geneva – originally sometime this month.

But events Thursday – including a defiant interview by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Hezbollah television in which he expressed confidence he would receive sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles, and a key Syrian opposition group’s insistence it won’t attend the proposed conference – appear to darken the already dim chances for the diplomatic initiative.

Despite the setback, the US continues to insist a Syria peace conference remains a key goal, and a critical element of the Obama administration’s “two-track” Syria policy of seeking a political settlement to the conflict even as the US continues to support the opposition battling Mr. Assad.

In the eyes of some regional experts, however, the US is simply playing into Russia’s game plan of forestalling a more robust US intervention in Syria by agreeing to co-sponsor peace talks that appear to have little chance of success.

The US rejected the notion that the peace-conference initiative is doomed. “We expect to be able to move forward on a conference,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday, adding that the nature and complexity of the Syrian conflict meant it was never going to be quick and easy to set up negotiations.

“If it was possible for the Geneva 2 conference to happen tomorrow, the Secretary [of State John Kerry] would be on a plane tonight,” said Ms. Psaki, using the name diplomats have already coined for the as-yet unconfirmed conference.

Senior US diplomats will meet next week in Geneva with Russian and UN officials to continue planning for the conference, she said. Some officials speculate that what was originally envisioned for May could now slip into July.

As for Russia and why it would deliver sophisticated weaponry to Assad with the one hand while working with the US and the United Nations on a peace conference with the other, Psaki said she did not “want to speculate on what their motivations are.”

But she said Russia had accepted the need for a “political transition” in Syria since the first Geneva conference on Syria a year ago, and the US continues to see Russia as a “partner” in the diplomatic process in particular because it can bring the Assad regime to the table.

“They have shown a willingness to help plan this conference and to bring parties to the table,” she said. “We have no reason to believe [the Russians] aren’t interested in being a partner.”

Some administration critics counter that the White House is allowing the US to be played by the Russians, whose main interest they say is to avoid the kind of decisive intervention the US and other Western powers undertook in Libya in 2011.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who made a surprise visit to rebel-held Syrian territory this week, says the rebels are running out of arms and ammunition, and are going up against growing numbers of Hezbollah and Iranian fighters coming into the country to fight on Assad’s behalf. Senator McCain has long advocated arming the rebels and imposing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria.          

This week’s setbacks to a diplomatic solution to Syria’s increasingly deadly conflict – the war’s death toll is on a path to cross the 100,000 threshold next month – will likely amplify calls for President Obama to intervene more directly in the conflict, some regional experts say. If the conflict proves to not be “ripe” for a negotiated settlement, they add, pressure will grow for lethal measures. 

Syria’s main opposition group, the National Coalition, announced Thursday in Geneva that it would not take part in any negotiations as long as Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Iran are in Syria fighting for the Assad regime.

"It is difficult to continue when Syrians are constantly being hammered by the Assad regime with the help of outside forces," George Sabra, the National Coalition’s acting chairman, said in a statement.

That ultimatum was issued a day after Syria’s main opposition group  said it would only participate in political talks that presented Mr. Assad with a deadline for stepping down from power.

Further obstructing the path to peace talks was Assad’s interview on Hezbollah-owned Al Manar television in Lebanon. In addition to issuing pointed warnings aimed at Israel, Assad said his regime had received ample stockpiles of Russian weaponry and suggested that Moscow was following through with the delivery of sophisticated air-defense missiles.

Russia has said the missiles are a purely defensive weapon. But senior Russian officials have also suggested recently that the missiles should cause the West to think twice before intervening in the Syrian conflict: either by arming the rebels with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or by enforcing a no-fly zone over Syrian territory.

Some analysts with an understanding of Russian motivations say Moscow may genuinely desire to see the jointly sponsored peace conference take place – not because it would have a serious chance of hammering out a political solution to the Syrian conflict, but because the promise of negotiations at some point could stave off deeper Western, and in particular American, intervention.

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