A flurry of diplomacy over Syria, but will it amount to progress?

There is concern over a Russian missile shipment to the Assad regime, but cautious optimism persists in some Western capitals over a planned international conference on Syria.

Jim Hollander/REUTERS/File
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (l.) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak after delivering joint statements following their meeting in Jerusalem in this 2012 file photo.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, adding to the recent flurry of global diplomatic activity over the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Agence France-Presse reports Mr. Netanyahu will meet Mr. Putin in Russia Tuesday, where "major attention will be paid to the current situation in the Middle East, first and foremost in Syria," according to a Kremlin statement. Although the statement did not offer further details, AFP reported on Sunday that Netanyahu's trip was "reportedly prompted by concerns that Russia was preparing to ship Syria S-300 surface-to-air missiles, which can defend against multiple aircraft and missiles."

Russia has been a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria as the civil war has unfolded, much to the consternation of the West and most Middle Eastern nations. Russia has countered that the West is fueling regional instability in its support for the rebels, particularly by empowering the Islamist elements therein.

The missiles, whose shipment came to light last week, are a source of concern for both Israel – which has staged two airstrikes against targets in Syria in recent weeks – and for the US, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"I think we have made it crystal clear that we would prefer that Russia is not supplying assistance," to Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists during a visit to Italy.

"We have previously stated that [these] missiles are potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel," he said....

Introduction of the S-300 into Syria's air defense arsenal could sharply limit the future options not only for Israel but for the US as well, should it decide to intervene in the conflict.

But even as the US and Israel express their concerns over Russia's missile shipment to the Assad regime, there is cautious optimism in some Western capitals over a planned international conference on Syria that both Moscow and Washington are organizing.

The Guardian writes that British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is visiting the White House today, is reportedly set to tell President Barack Obama that he believes Russia is prepared to adopt a more flexible approach to Syria, based on Mr. Cameron's meeting Friday with Putin in Sochi, Russia.

Speaking during his flight to Washington, Cameron described his talks with Putin as "extremely positive and good". He said: "I was very heartened that while it is no secret that Britain and Russia have taken a different approach to Syria I was very struck in my conversations with President Putin that there is a recognition that it would be in all our interests to secure a safe and secure Syria with a democratic and pluralistic future and end the regional instability.

"We have a long way to go. But they were good talks and I am looking forward to now taking them up with President Obama and seeing if we can turn this proposal for a peace process and a peace conference into something that can make a real difference." ...

Cameron said he would use his meeting with Obama to "try to really put flesh on the bones of this plan for a peace conference and to think of all the things that would make it work and deliver a peaceful transition in Syria. A lot of progress has been made and I want to push on on that."

But experts tell AFP that they doubt the progress will amount to anything concrete.

Stephen Sestanovich, an expert in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said this week's agreement on a peace conference "moves the Geneva [peace plan] formula one step further, but what is one step beyond complete meaninglessness?"

"The real issue is whether the Russians are prepared to tell Assad and his supporters that the jig is really up for their regime," he added.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said he was not convinced that the different players' positions had changed "that much."

...Shaikh stressed that "the situation on the ground" -- rather than diplomatic efforts -- "will continue to shape events."

Reuters notes that it is not yet clear whether the Syrian opposition will attend the US-Russia peace conference. The opposition coalition is set to meet on May 23 to determine whether it will attend, though the coalition itself remains split over the leadership of the group. Reuters writes that two factions, one backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the other by Qatar, are vying for control of the coalition.

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