US and Russia team up to make fresh diplomatic push on Syria

US Secretary of State Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov say they hope to convene an international conference on Syria later in May. The US has also stepped up humanitarian aid.

Mladen Antonov/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov take part in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Tuesday, May 7, 2013.

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After more than two years of escalating violence in Syria – including reports of chemical weapons use and the loss of an estimated 80,000 lives – the international community is spearheading a renewed diplomatic push to bring the conflict to an end.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The two announced their hope to organize an international conference on Syria later this month.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy to Syria, called the planned conference “the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time," Voice of America reported.

The US State Department also announced this week an additional $100 million in humanitarian aid to the estimated 1.4 million Syrians displaced by the drawn-out civil war. The money will be distributed through UN agencies to provide food, shelter, and healthcare in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria, according to the State Department.

This brings the US’s aid commitment to $510 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The additional aid will help the Obama administration deflect criticism that it is not doing enough to deal with” the confict in Syria, and is not related to the question of whether to arm rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, it reports.

But the flurry of activity this week to move toward a solution in Syria that does not include armed intervention has some questioning whether diplomatic channels alone can help end the protracted violence.

In an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune, George Sabra, the acting president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, notes that, “U.S. inaction is giving the Assad regime, after two years of wanton bloodshed, a green light to take even more outrageous steps to kill innocents.” (Subscription required.)

Mr. Sabra, whose coalition is made up of various opposition groups and representatives from citizen councils in Syria, writes that Syrians want the fighting to end and the rebuilding of their nation to begin. He requests internationally enforced safe zones with protected airspace; follow-through from the US on its claims that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” or “game changer” in the conflict; and a diplomatic push to remove Assad from power.

The past decade's wars may have understandably made Americans weary of prolonged intervention in foreign conflicts. And as Syrians, we make these requests with a heavy heart. But we have painfully witnessed two years of mass destruction, lawlessness and more than 80,000 lives lost since the beginning of the revolution. It is critical that the Obama administration move swiftly and strategically to take the right course of action.

Kerry, in Rome today, announced that the push for a political solution to the crisis in Syria would have to exclude President Assad in any transitional government, reports Agence France-Presse.

All sides of the conflict are working to "effect a transition government by mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgement President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government," Kerry said.

But weakening Assad’s grip on power poses a difficult task. The BBC’s Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar notes that the Assad regime “increasingly thinks that by not losing it is winning,” which has given it fresh conviction.

That new confidence – along with what is believed to be a steady supply of arms from its supporters in Iran and Russia – is helping the regime to take back some areas which it had previously lost.

In the capital Damascus, you can hear the sound of mortar fire as the regime slowly pushes fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) out of the parts of the city that it took the rebels months to get hold of.

But Mr. Danahar also notes that the relative inaction of Western powers in Syria could come down to the lack of organization on the ground in Syria. Danahar likens the FSA to a more informal “men with guns” and very little unity or oversight.

America is not acting because it does not know what to do or whom to do it with.

Neither do the European countries.

Having spent the last few days in Beirut and Damascus, talking to the international community, Western diplomats, FSA activists and Syrian regime supporters, it is clear that nobody knows how to end this crisis.

That's just about the only thing all sides agree on.

An editorial in the Washington Post this week poses the question “What if the US doesn’t intervene in Syria?”

Opponents of U.S. intervention in Syria are adept at citing the risks of a more aggressive U.S. effort to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Weapons given to rebel fighters might end up in the hands of extremists, the skeptics say. U.S. air attacks or the creation of a no-fly zone would be challenged by formidable air defenses. U.S. intervention might increase the risk that the regime would resort to chemical weapons….

These are serious objections, though we believe that some of the risks, such as the spread of weapons to jihadists, can be mitigated, while others, such as the strength of Syrian air defenses, have been exaggerated….

What will unfold in Syria if the Obama administration persists with its policy of providing humanitarian and other non-lethal aid while standing back from the fighting? The most likely scenario is that Syria fractures along sectarian lines…. Such a splintering would almost certainly spread the sectarian warfare to Iraq and Lebanon, as it has to some extent already….

There are no good options, as everyone likes to say. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the greatest risk to the United States lies in failing to take decisive action to end the Assad regime.

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