World

U.S.-Russian rift over Syrian chemical arms probe threatens upcoming peace talks

AFP-JIJI, AP

The latest U.S. and Russian bid to find common ground on which to build some hope for Syria is in trouble, just days ahead of talks that could make or break the peace process.

A United Nations mediator has called on President Bashar Assad’s regime and a beleaguered opposition coalition to send envoys to Geneva on Nov. 28 to resolve the nearly 7-year-old civil war.

This came less than a week after Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement agreeing that there is “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict.

U.S. officials welcomed the statement as a sign of Russia’s commitment to a U.N.-backed political process that Washington feels must lead to an end to Assad’s bloody reign.

But if their show of optimism raised cynical eyebrows then, it seemed even less plausible by Friday, after the latest heated showdown over Syria at the United Nations.

There, Russia moved to thwart international attempts to salvage a U.N.-led probe into the use of chemical weapons by Assad and extremist groups to slaughter civilians.

It was Russia’s second veto in 24 hours of a resolution to keep the Joint Investigative Mechanism in operation.

Russia cast its latest veto Friday night on a last-ditch resolution by Japan to extend the mandate for 30 days for further discussions.

Russia has now cast 11 vetoes on possible Security Council action on Syria since the country’s civil war began in 2011. The Japanese draft received 12 votes in favor, while China abstained and Bolivia joined Russia in voting “no.”

A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted.

The first Russian veto on a U.S.-sponsored resolution, and Russia’s failure to get the minimum nine “yes” votes on its rival resolution during a highly contentious three-hour council meeting Thursday, reflected the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.

Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was clear about what the Russian veto of the resolution meant for the broader peace process. “Russia proves they cannot be trusted or credible as we work towards a political solution in Syria,” she declared.

The previous U.S. administration under Barack Obama repeatedly tried to engage Putin with a peace plan that would lead to a transition away from Assad’s rule. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s frequent forays to Vienna and Geneva to spar with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were much mocked at home.

But, despite the progress that a U.S.-led military coalition has made against the Islamic State group’s Syrian strongholds, Putin has remained loyal to Assad.

And U.S. diplomats now hope not only to nudge Russia into bringing him to the table, but also to have Moscow help them oust Syria’s other main ally, Iran, from the battlefield.

If Russia, in Haley’s words, is “no longer trusted or credible,” what hope can there be for this plan, with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura’s Nov. 28 peace talks fast approaching?

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert shared Haley’s disgust with Russia’s opposition to the U.N. chemical weapons probe, saying, “We were very disappointed.”

Nauert noted that Moscow and Washington agree on the need to destroy IS and have worked together to set up a cease-fire zone in southwest Syria.

“So the secretary and the president and Mr. Lavrov and Vladimir Putin have agreed to try to put together another one,” she said.

“If we can do that, and we can find this area of agreement, it could potentially bring in more aid and save lives and try to get Syria more stable.”

But, asked if Russia could be a U.S. partner in saving the Geneva process toward a settlement, she admitted: “I don’t know.”

Many observers scoff at that idea, and most doubt that Putin, having risked Russian troops and planes to save Assad, would now encourage a peace process that would see him step down.

And Western diplomats say that, in private, some senior U.S. officials admit that Assad and Putin effectively won the war two years ago and are now just consolidating victory.

To give that a veneer of international respectability, Moscow has set up its own peace process in Kazakhstan with Turkey and Iran as co-guarantors — leaving aside the U.S. and U.N. efforts.

“The Russians are doing everything they can to drain Geneva of its substance and replace it with a process they control,” said Joseph Bahout, Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.