Few meetings ever started with dimmer prospects for success than the recent meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin.
The real call for the meeting stemmed from the EU refugee crisis. With a human catastrophe brewing in Europe and the Middle East, EU leaders are urgently demanding that the U.S. and Russia set aside their differences and begin to work together in an effort to resolve the Syrian conflict, the major cause of the massive movement of people seeking sanctuary.
Now, U.S./EU leaders are no longer insisting on the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office as a pre-condition to negotiations over a new government, although the U.S. continues to insist that al-Assad’s removal become part of any final settlement.
But how can such fundamental differences be set aside when the two sides can’t even agree on the enemy they’re fighting? The U.S. and its allies have defined the Syrian conflict as a civil war against a despotic regime. The Russians define the conflict as an invasion by foreign Islamic radicals, paid and supported by U.S.’ Middle Eastern allies.
The EU has made its demands clear: solve the problem, we don’t particularly care how, but it has to be done quickly. From that point of view, the U.S. and Russian leaders have little choice but to answer the call.
Russia is attempting to form and lead a UN authorized coalition against ISIL, the radical jihadists’ adversaries that conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq, while threatening to engulf the entire region.
Obama has stated publicly that he welcomes help from Russia and Iran in the fight against radical jihadists, ISIL, in Syria, while still insisting that al-Assad must go. On their side, the Russians have made no secret of their strong objections to NATO-led regime change, citing the results of failed states in Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.
In a recent New York Times article, an Administration insider stated that the President believes Syria is a lost cause, one that U.S. military presence could only worsen.
Obama has also shown little reluctance to lead from behind, when supporting NATO partners, particularly with a U.S. public largely opposed to America’s military engagement in any further Mideast wars.
But Russia is not NATO, and it’s clear that the U.S. has no intention of following the Kremlin’s lead in Syria, as its veto of the Russian coalition proposal at the UN Security Council clearly shows. Adding to that was the United States’strong condemnation of the Russian air attack on its first day of operations in Syria.
The urgency of the moment favors cooperation, while geography gives Russia major advantages in leading the fight. Russia’s relationship with Iran, already fighting on the ground in Iraq, with its ally Hezbollah fighting in Syria, provides Russia with a readymade army to complement its air attacks.
With the Russians initiating air strikes against ISIL in Syria, the great fear of world leaders is that an accidental collision between opposing U.S. and Russian forces raises the risks of war between the two nuclear powers.
While both sides deny any intent at military collaboration or sharing of military intelligence in Syria, the two Presidents have agreed to meetings of their military leaders, ostensibly aimed at reducing the risk of accidental conflicts between them. How that can be done without shared military intelligence about troop movements, and planned air attacks remains a mystery.
Adding to the confusion is the increasingly cordial meetings between Russian and Saudi leaders.
Many believe that the Saudis, and their Gulf Kingdom partners, hold the key to resolving the conflict, as the major backers of the ‘moderate Islamic’ rebels fighting the Syrian Government forces.
The Saudis have largely refrained from criticizing the Russian military buildup in Syria, even though it bolsters the Assad regime, and the Kingdom continues to hold its cards close to its vest regarding their position on the new Russian military initiative in Syria.
At the same time, there were conflicting signals in regards to the relationship between Iran and Russia. Reports surfaced in late September that the two countries, along with Syria and Iraq, were coordinating military efforts against the ISIL. But at the UN meeting, Iran’s President Rouhani made the surprisingstatement that Iran saw no need to coordinate military efforts in Syria, with the Russian goal to support its embattled ally in Syria, while Iran’s goal is eradicate ISIL.
It’s widely recognized that since the Iran nuclear deal, Iran and the U.S. have sought to move closer in other important areas. Still, Rouhani’s UN statement seemed to belie the recent agreements between Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to build an information center in Baghdad to share battlefield reconnaissance against ISIL.
That also falls in line with the new agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria to provide an air corridor for Russian military flyovers to Syria for Russian fighter planes and transport aircraft.
To observers, these agreements certainly smack of military coordination with Russia. Iran’s need to distance itself from Russia seems to be made with an eye on the U.S., where hardline Presidential candidates threaten to tear up the nuclear agreement.
The highly charged political atmosphere in the U.S., in the midst of a Presidential election, only adds to the fog of war in Syria, forcing public denials and secret agreements where there needs to be utmost clarity, making military cooperation in Syria almost impossible, while raising the risks of accidental conflicts between so-called partners.
What then of western sanctions against Russia? In the eyes of the west, the Syrian conflict is beginning to eclipse Ukraine in importance. The U.S. seems satisfied to leave the Ukraine issue to Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine for settlement.
The EU is most likely to be the first mover to ease sanctions, realizing, as anumber of EU leaders have stated, that it is fundamentally incompatible to rely on Russia’s military might while starving the Russian economy.
In January, the EU sanctions are set to expire, requiring a unanimous vote of all member states for extension. The odds are rising that the EU will allow sanctions to expire.
If so, major global business will once again flock to Russia. That would include the return of major western energy companies that have played a critical part in Russian energy development. Once that starts, it will become far more difficult to reverse the momentum or re-impose sanctions.
Given the political atmosphere in Washington, it’s clear the U.S. will leave its sanctions in place.
By Robert Berke for Oilprice.com
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