May 19, 2016
International Syria Support Group (ISSG) met in Vienna on 17 May 2016. In keeping with the tradition, the Group issued a statement (*) and the Co-Chairs and UN Envoy Staffan di Mistura made remarks to the press (**). What made this last press conference particularly interesting were the explicit references to conflicts of interest within the Group, almost contradicting the words of unity and harmony used in the Statement. Indeed, it had always been more than obvious that the Group remained divided on the future of President Assad, the designation of terrorist organizations and the support allegedly given to some of these by ISSG members. However, on earlier occasions these differences were not spelled out with such clarity.
The Statement underlined the importance of the “cessation of hostilities” and said that if the commitments of the parties to the cessation are not implemented in good faith, the consequences could include the return of full-scale war. It said that the ISSG welcomed the Russian Federation’s commitment to “work with the Syrian authorities to minimize aviation operations over areas predominantly inhabited by civilians or parties to the cessation, as well as the United States’ commitment to intensifying its support and assistance to regional allies to help them prevent the flow of fighters, weapons, or financial support to terrorist organizations across their borders.” Furthermore, noting that Da’esh and the Nusra Front have already been designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organizations, the ISSG urged that the international community do all it can to prevent any material or financial support from reaching these groups and dissuade any party to the cessation from fighting in collaboration with them. Finally, the Statement referred to the “united commitment” of all ISSG members to a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political transition.
In his remarks to the press, Secretary Kerry referred to competing interests and competing agendas which had to be reconciled to prioritize peace. He mentioned those who would rather have this effort fail. He stated that there are actors on both sides who could make that kind of a choice. He warned against allowing them a chance to veto peace. And then, trying to strike a more optimistic tone, he said:
“… all of the parties, most importantly Russia, Iran, that have been supportive of Assad and key countries in the region who have been opposed to him, have agreed on a basic framework, which is a united Syria, nonsectarian, that is able to choose its future through a transitional governing body which is, in effect, the implementation of the Geneva process…”
Foreign Minister Lavrov focused on terrorism and also responded to Mr. Kerry:
“… what is behind our efforts is a joint concern about increasing terrorism in the region and in Syria in particular. And we have the problem of Jabhat al-Nusrah. It is changing; it makes alliances with some groups that accede to cessation of hostilities, but when it is comfortable to them, they pull out of these arrangements and then go back.
“… John said that Russia and Iran will support Assad. We don’t support Assad. We support fight against terrorism. Today on the ground we don’t see any more real and efficient force than the Syrian army… we don’t protect somebody personally. We protect, we defend a state – a UN member state – at the request of the government of this sovereign state whose sovereignty and political independence we have to protect, as it comes from the UN Security Council resolution.”
Mr. Lavrov, without specifically mentioning the YPG and PYD which Turkey considers to be affiliates of the PKK, also stated that the Syria talks should not exclude any parties including the Kurdish parties. And, he said:
“… The main channel for supplying extremists and those who take a moderate position – there is a swath of border, something – more than 19 – 90 kilometers controlled to – on the Syrian territory by the ISIL and on the Turkish side by the Turks. And there are two enclaves of Kurds, and from time to time, Turkey says that if the Kurds push the ISIL out from this border zone, it will not put up with that because it is not acceptable for them.”
Turkish daily Hürriyet reported that during the ISSG meeting, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Çavuşoğlu had responded to Minister Lavrov’s accusations regarding Turkey’s condoning ISIL by saying that he was prepared to resign from his post should Mr. Lavrov provide a shred of evidence that this was the case. Such is the sad state of Turkish-Russian relations. Our broad cooperation enabled the two countries to address the differences over Syria with moderation but since the downing of Su-24 aircraft everything has changed.
In brief, this is the “US-Russian roadmap” to end the Syrian conflict:
Moscow will work on the Assad regime to fully respect the terms of the “cessation of hostilities” and to engage in meaningful talks for political transition and Washington will intensify its support and assistance to regional allies to help them prevent the flow of fighters, weapons, or financial support to terrorist organizations across their borders. Washington’s regional allies are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. (Only two weeks ago, on May 2, in Geneva, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, standing next to Secretary Kerry, had said: “… Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered. He will leave. He can leave through a political process, which we hope he will do, or he will be removed by force.”)
The Vienna meeting coincided with some speculation on the prospect of a new cold with lack of progress in Ukraine, Russian fighter planes thundering over American naval vessels, NATO’s missile defense systems going live in Eastern Europe, close military encounters involving aircraft and interceptions. Yet, Russia and the US, using businesslike language, were able to declare once again that they will keep on trying to end Syria’s sectarian conflict. We should wish them luck with their regional allies…