Syria forum prompts guarded optimism

The Washington Post

President Barack Obama and visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed limited optimism Monday that an upcoming international conference on Syria will lead to a political solution to its civil war.

“I’m not promising that it’s going to be successful,” Obama said at a joint news conference. “Frankly, sometimes once . . . the Furies have been unleashed in a situation like we’re seeing in Syria, it’s very hard to put things back together.”

Cameron spoke of “an urgent window of opportunity before the worst fears are realized.”

Secretary of State John Kerry announced the conference last week in Moscow, after apparently convincing President Vladimir Putin that Russia should participate in the effort to find a political solution to a conflict that has killed more than 80,000 Syrians and displaced millions.

Although Putin, whose government has armed Syrian President Bashar Assad and has refused to support a U.N. resolution condemning him, agreed to the concept, the details have proved problematic.

Kerry initially said that the meeting, to be held in Geneva, would take place by the end of this month, but his spokeswoman said Monday that it would more likely be held in June. Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition — which are to send representatives to negotiate a transition — has yet agreed to attend.

At the very least, however, the prospect of pulling off the conference appears to have put on hold plans by the United States, Britain and France to begin arming Syrian rebels.

News of the conference came amid an internal White House debate that was leaning sharply toward providing weapons to the rebels. Britain and France had declared their determination to force the suspension of a European Union arms embargo on all parties in Syria to allow them to supply the rebels. The embargo is set to expire May 30.

In recent days, both European governments have altered their language somewhat, saying they have made no decision on arms but seek more “flexibility” in EU restrictions that would allow them to do so if it becomes necessary.

In Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France and Britain wanted “a few improvements” in the embargo “to enable us to protect the civilian population.” Le Drian is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Washington on Friday.

Cameron said his government was “continuing to examine and look at” the embargo to “see whether we need to make further changes.”

Leaving the possibility of arms on the table is seen as an inducement to both Russia and the rebels to take the conference seriously. For Russia, the prospect of Western military aid to the opposition and a rebel victory that could cost Moscow its naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast may be even less appealing than the thought of Assad losing power.

For the rebels, refusal to cooperate in negotiations could reduce the likelihood of Western supplies in the event that the talks fail. The diplomatic overture comes as rebel military fortunes have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks and some gains won earlier in the year have been reversed.

Continuing efforts to persuade the opposition to organize itself as a viable government in rebel-held areas, and to ensure that aid is withheld from Islamist extremists in their midst, have been less than successful amid a growing feeling that the situation is spinning out of control.

The Geneva conference is designed as a followup to a meeting held in the summer by a self-styled Action Group of governments from Europe and the Middle East that have the largest stakes in Syria.