Better news at last for Syria

It’s been a long time since there’s been anything like good news from Syria. In just the last week there have been massacres, abduction of UN peacekeepers, Israeli air strikes, reports of chemical weapons, and even a shutdown of the internet. In two years of civil war something like 70,000 Syrians have been killed.

But this morning there was finally some more encouraging news, in the form of agreement between Russia and the United States to jointly try to convene a peace conference to end the war. Speaking in Moscow after talks with Vladimir Putin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, secretary of state John Kerry said they had “agreed that as soon as is practical, possibly and hopefully by the end of this month, we will convene – seek to convene an international conference” charged with getting the Syrian government and opposition together to set up a transitional authority, as per last year’s Geneva conference.

The announcement has been greeted positively by other international actors. UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said it was “the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” but added that “It is nevertheless only a first step.”

There’s certainly a long way to go. The rivers of blood that have flowed between them will make it monumentally difficult to get the regime and its opponents to talk to each other, even indirectly. Previous peace efforts have come to nothing, and this one may well turn out the same.

Yet if the great powers are willing to lean on the participants, agreement should be possible. Bashar al-Assad must know that he can never go back to being president of a peaceful country; for him it is a choice between accepting a managed transition that will end in honorable or at least safe retirement, with some protection for his family and allies, or else fighting on with the likelihood that his co-religionists will be massacred and he will meet the same fate as Colonel Gaddafi.

The opposition will also have to be dragged into co-operating, but if they care about Syria as much as they claim then they should be willing to accept some compromises in order to stop the killing – helped by the knowledge that they have majority support and so should be the eventual winners from any democratic transition.

Joint US-Russian action is no guarantee of success, but it is at least the essential precondition. Almost a year ago I said that

Russia’s goals are reasonably clear. It wants a friendly government in Syria, it wants its own geopolitical importance to be affirmed, and it doesn’t want to be seen to be pulling the rug from under an ally. On the other hand, Assad is clearly becoming more and more of an embarrassment, and continuing instability is as harmful to Russia’s interests as anyone’s.

That’s all still true. But until now, western diplomacy has been singularly unsuccessful in turning the apparent common ground into actual agreement. As Kerry himself put it, “there has been a perception that Russia and the United States haven’t been particularly on the same page of cooperating in this effort.”

The report tonight on SBS news said something to the effect that Syria had been a cause of strained relations between Russia and the US, but I’m inclined to think that the causal link is more significant in the other direction: that the fact that Russia-US relations were already not as good as they should be has been one of the factors making the Syrian conflict so horribly intractable.

The mutual suspicions of the Cold War have not been as easily overcome as people hoped. Both sides are partly to blame, although my view is that the missed opportunities and counter-productive efforts have probably been more numerous on the American side. The Iraq war in particular has made it difficult to convince Putin of the rectitude of American intentions in the Middle East.

This latest effort too may well founder on the rocks of distrust. But for now we can at least indulge in a little hope for unhappy Syria.

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