[Published 18 November 2015]
President Obama has finally abandoned his 2011 policy calling for Syria’s President Assad to step aside and allow the future of Syria to be determined by its people - opening the way to a UN-led process on the political future of Syria being undertaken without first removing Assad.
Russia’s Foreign Minister— Sergey Lavrov — had criticised Obama’s stance as recently as 2 June 2015:
“The U.S.‘s “obsession” with [Syria’s President] Assad isn’t helping in the common fight against the threat from Islamic State…
“People put the fate of one person whom they hate above the fight against terrorism. Islamic State can go “very far” unless stopped, and air strikes alone “are not going to do the trick”
“If people continue to acquiesce with what is going on and continue to acquiesce with those who categorically refuse to start the political process until Bashar Assad disappears, then I’m not very optimistic for the future of this region…”
Marie Harf - a U.S. State Department spokeswoman responded:
“We’re certainly not going to coordinate with a brutal dictator who’s massacred so many of his own citizens. That’s just an absurd proposition. That’s certainly not going to happen.”
Less than five months later that “absurd proposition” has come to fruition.
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Vienna on 14 November — attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry — agreed:
“on the need to convene Syrian government and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under UN auspices, as soon as possible, with a target date of January 1.”
Lavrov elaborated at a joint press conference with Kerry beside him:
“We have reiterated that Syrian future will be decided by Syrian people alone. This regards also the destiny of Mr. Assad and any other politician in this country.”
Lavrov stated that UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura would get the opposition and government together by 1 January for political negotiations — and continued:
“The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic has already informed Mr. de Mistura on the composition of their delegation. And today, Mr. de Mistura has the task to find the composition of the Syrian opposition delegation, which should be representative and reflect the whole spectrum of political forces.”
It will be nothing short of a miracle if Mr De Mistura can pull this rabbit out of the hat by 1 January. Nevertheless it does at last signify an international will and consensus on the way forward to ending a conflict that has claimed 300000 lives and created a flood of 7 million externally and internally displaced refugees during the last four years.
The ISSG further reiterated that the Islamic State, Nusra and other terrorist groups as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the ISSG participants and endorsed by the UN Security Council, must be defeated.
Jordan was appointed to develop a commonly agreed list of terrorist organisations by 1 January.
This foot-dragging takes the heat off any unified military action to target the Islamic State following the recent Russian airliner explosion and the Paris atrocities this week.
Nevertheless Lavrov was predicting that following his meetings with some unnamed ISSG members:
“I have a feeling that there was a growing understanding that there is a terrible need for efficient, comprehensive, international coalition to fight ISIS and other terrorists, as President Putin has said. And there are no prerequisites in this regard”.
Any international coalition to fight the Islamic State can only be achieved through a UN Security Council Resolution.
Since the five Permanent Members of the Security Council are also members of the ISSG — such a Resolution cannot come quickly enough.