How deep is the divide separating Russia and the US on Syria?
A photograph from the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland says it all — two grim-faced leaders slouched in their chairs, US President Barack Obama biting his lip and Russian President Vladimir Putin staring at the floor.
The awkward photo opportunity, which went viral on the Internet, highlights the increasingly tense relationship between the former Cold War foes, who find it difficult to agree on a series of high-profile issues, including Syria and a fugitive US intelligence contractor who Putin refuses to extradite.
Washington and Moscow have been trying since May to organize an international peace conference to bring an end to the violence, but hopes that such a conference will take place anytime soon — if at all — are fading quickly.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov originally announced that they would try to hold the conference, which is intended to bring rebels and representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to the negotiating table by the end of May, but the date keeps slipping.
First it was bumped to last month, then this month. Last week, UN-Arab League peace mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who held talks with senior US and Russian officials in Geneva, Switzerland, ruled out a peace conference before next month.
Diplomats at the UN in New York say it is unclear whether the peace conference will take place at all.
“It’s not looking too good,” a senior Western diplomat said.
The point of the conference was to revive a plan adopted last year in Geneva. At that time, Washington and Moscow agreed on the need for a transitional Syrian government, but left open the question of whether al-Assad could participate in the process.
The US, like the Syrian rebels, says al-Assad and his family should play no role in a transitional government, though Russia says there should be no conditions on the talks.
Kerry and Lavrov plan to discuss Syria again this week on the sidelines of an ASEAN conference in Brunei, the UN said on Tuesday last week.
There are other sticking points in discussions on how to make what UN diplomats have been calling “Geneva 2” take place at all — who will represent al-Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition at the negotiating table. There is still no agreement on the lineup of potential negotiators.
Then there is the issue of whether al-Assad’s other key ally, Iran, should participate, as Russia wants, but Western governments dislike.
Al-Assad’s forces have been enjoying some military successes. They have recaptured two towns near the Lebanese border, while rebels complain about insufficient arms and ammunition.
This, diplomats say, makes both al-Assad’s government and the opposition more reluctant to seek a compromise and diplomacy in Geneva — al-Assad because he thinks he can win the war militarily, and the opposition because it does not want to negotiate from a position of weakness and is holding out for more weapons.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a press conference last week that authorities were ready to form a broad-based government of national unity, but he made clear that they were not planning to give up control of Syria.
“We head to Geneva not to hand over power to another side,” al-Moualem said. “Whoever on the other side imagines this, I advise them not to go to Geneva.”