The US and Russia must cooperate on Syria

The US and Russia must cooperate on Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a lot to answer for and the hope is that we will see him in the dock one day at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Whether that day will come is not certain, of course. Many will recall how a bloody dictator like Idi Amin, who was said to have killed anything up to half a million people, died happily in Saudi Arabia in 2003 after fleeing Uganda in 1979.

But the world has changed and we did see former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at the tribunal in The Hague eventually. The point, however, was that Milosevic was also at the negotiating table in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, and contributed to ending the Bosnian war, even if this did not prevent him from being indicted for war crimes later.

Whatever al-Assad’s future is, it cannot be a comfortable one with the fear of imminent death or imprisonment constantly hanging over him. This, however, is all for the future. The immediate issue in Syria today is no longer to see al-Assad go and hold him to account for his crimes.

The immediate question is to stop the increasingly bloody civil war, and then to ensure that Syria does not fall apart along ethnic and religious/sectarian lines in a way that would cause regional and global instability for years to come.

With the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing one side, and Russia, China, and Iran the other, the war in Syria has resulted in a stalemate. This means, for all intents and purposes, that al-Assad is still a factor in the equation, whether we like it or not.

Seeing no end to the present violence, the head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Mouaz al-Khatib, appears to be inching toward acknowledging this fact also.

He is not only talking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi now, but is also mentioning the possibility of negotiating with the al-Assad regime, as Moscow and Tehran have been exhorting for some time.

Meanwhile, Washington, through State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, has signaled that it is not averse to the notion of talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime. Not everyone in the Syrian opposition, and particularly members of the Syrian National Council supported by Turkey, are happy about this, of course.

Some have already accused al-Khatib of treachery. His answer to them, however, suggests that his prime concern is to stop the bloodshed, even if this means talking to al-Assad’s people. If that is done and a cease-fire is achieved, the next step will be to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity and prevent the country from falling apart, a fear based on the deep enmity that exists now between the ethnic and religious/sectarian communities.

That is going to require an international effort, with the involvement of all the key players in Syria today, including Turkey and Iran, since Syria can no longer do this without outside help. The situation was much the same for Bosnia in 1995.

This, in turn, places a great responsibility on the shoulders of the two key Security Council members – the U.S. and Russia, who are on the opposing sides of the fence on Syria. They have to work together to achieve an end to the civil war and to ensure Syria remains intact. They managed to see eye to eye on Mali, so they can work to do the same here.

Obviously, the U.S. and Russia are not the only players here, but if they can produce a workable format, other countries concerned with this issue will have to accept the agreement they come up with, given their strategic ties with these powers.

Washington and Moscow have not been able to agree yet. But clearly it is time for them to work together if they are sincere about wanting to end the bloodshed and maintain Syria’s territorial integrity, as they say maintain they are.