In his first visit to Moscow since becoming US Secretary of State, John Kerry held extensive discussions on Syria with President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The discussions led to an agreement on the need to expedite a political resolution through the convening of a wider international conference on Syria, one built on the June 2012 Geneva Declaration by the Syria Action Group. Regional and global players with an influence on the Syrian crisis, beyond the US, Russia, Iran, and the two main parties to the conflict-the Syrian regime and the internal opposition-would be included.
This report aims to shed light on a number of questions. What drove Kerry to seek a political solution to the Syrian crisis at this time in particular ? What do Russia and the US hope to achieve by holding an international conference ? What changed the US’s position, such that it is now willing to accept the participation of Iran and Russia in an international conference, considering it previously refused their participation in the Syria Action Group that drafted the Geneva Communique last year ? Does this imply that Washington accepts Russia’s previous interpretation of the declaration and that the obstacles to its implementation are now out of the way ?
A Crisis-afflicted Obama Seeks Answers in Moscow
Kerry’s visit to Moscow was the result of increasing pressure on Obama’s administration, both domestic and foreign, to adopt a less ambiguous and more proactive attitude toward the Syrian crisis, particularly given the latest on-the-ground developments-including the regime’s use of chemical weapons and Iran and Hezbollah’s direct involvement. The latest Israeli strikes on military installations in and around Damascus have further exacerbated the situation.
Last year, Obama spelled out that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would be a « game changer, » a phrase many analysts took to imply the threat of direct US military action against the regime. After having received the message loud and clear, the Russians provided the US with tacit assurances that their allies in Damascus would never resort to such means. When Assad’s regime then used chemical weapons to block the opposition’s advance in a number of areas in the country, it caused a major source of unease for the two international power brokers.
The Obama administration attempted to free itself of its obligations by casting doubt on the veracity of reports Damascus’s use of chemical weapons-an act they previously, and explicitly, designated as crossing a « red line ». With the increasing evidence of the use of such weapons, both the White House and the US Department of State were compelled to acknowledge that chemical weapons had indeed been used by Assad’s forces. Moscow then attempted to cast off their embarrassment by placing the blame for the use of chemical weapons on the opposition.
Direct involvement by both Iran and Hezbollah has put more pressure on the Obama administration. Hezbollah sent hundreds of its own fighters to participate in the regime’s recapture of vital areas in and around Homs, particularly around the town of Al-Qusayr. Meanwhile, Iran bolstered its military presence in Syria following reiterated statements that it would not allow the Assad regime to fall. Iran and Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian regime over the past few weeks made possible a number of military advancements by Assad’s forces in the environs of both Homs and Damascus. The regime’s forces were thus given the chance to lift the military siege on the Wadi Al-Saif and Hamidia barracks around Idlib, and to renew attempts to recapture the town of Maarat Al-Numan, a strategic juncture on the Aleppo-Damascus road. This intervention by the regime’s allies bodes ill for the possibility that other regional actors, with their own vested interests, may also interfere in Syria. This in turn holds out the prospect that the conflict would become unruly, transforming it into a power play between regional forces, an eventuality that would change American calculations.
While both parties’ support for the Syrian regime pre-dates the outbreak of the revolution, the fact that such support was now in the open presented them with a new challenge to take similarly proactive steps. The burden is now on Obama to demonstrate that he takes a revised stance by supplying the revolutionaries with weapons, and encouraging the revolution’s regional backers to do likewise.
Ultimately, developments such as these pushed Obama into declaring that he was reconsidering his position on providing military support to the armed opposition. This contrasted with statements made by the American president last summer, in which he rejected recommendations made by a number of administrative departments-including the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the CIA-to supply the Syrian rebels with arms because he feared that such weapons may fall into the hands of extremists.
This later statement, however, appears to be more of a message to Moscow than a policy shift by the Obama administration. It provides a way for Obama to signal to the Russian government that, as a result of their failure to prevent Iranian interference in Syria and the difficulties caused by the use of chemical weapons, he may be forced to change his thinking on military support for the rebels. Kerry’s visit emphasizes the same point : Washington may find itself forced to militarily aid Syrian rebels if Moscow cannot bring more pressure to bear on Damascus to reach a political compromise with the revolutionaries.
Avoiding a Total Collapse : Return to Geneva
With the Syria Action Group’s Geneva Declaration set in place on June 30, 2012, Obama’s administration handed responsibility for finding a political resolution to the Syrian crisis over to Russia, while at no time appearing rushed in finding a solution. Despite their desire to see Assad leave, the US has not hid the fact that they are not keen to see his regime collapse entirely, nor do they want his Islamist opponents to come to power. Until recently, the US’s position was that they had no interest in putting an end to the conflict so long as it remained contained within Syria’s borders and a clash between two of its enemies, pitting Sunni extremists against Shiites. In this way, the Syrian conflict was not a priority for the US, which was involved in other, more pressing regional issues, such as Obama’s intent to set the groundwork for the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of next year. The US’s preoccupation with a number of other international issues-such as the Iranian nuclear program and tensions on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in East Asia-served to preclude Syria from the top slot on America’s list of priorities. All of this meant he needed both Russia and Iran onboard.
Piecemeal changes to such considerations brought forward the possibility that an international conference to end the Syrian crisis could be held. The regime’s use of chemical weapons also led to fears that opposition groups holding a grudge against the US and Israel might obtain similar munitions. In her statements, Carla Del Ponte, a representative of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, lent credence to such fears. Considerations such as these pushed the Obama administration into looking for common ground with Russia on the need to prevent a total collapse in Syria, which might spill over into the wider region. The factors described above provided an impetus for the US to try forging a solution with the Russians in order to overcome the impasse in Syria, which has held since this past summer.
Leaks from within the White House hinted that Kerry’s visit would be a last chance to persuade Moscow to change their course of action before the Americans would be left with no choice but to declare their backing for a military resolution. They also suggested that a declaration of such support could be forthcoming on the eve of an upcoming Putin-Obama meeting in Northern Ireland and on the fringes of a G-8 Summit planned for June 17 and 18. Official American sources claimed that the secretary of state’s mission was to test the extent of Russian sincerity, as well as their willingness to pressure Syria into finding political solutions to its conflict. The alternative would be to look for other avenues that would allow for more direct American involvement in support of the revolutionaries, and an examination of the appropriate military retaliation to the use of chemical weapons. With the US Senate discussing a motion to arm the Syrian opposition, while Kerry prepared for his trip to Russia, such a change seemed more likely. The Americans and the Russians were thus able to agree on a return to the principles enshrined in the Geneva Declaration, thereby overcoming controversies that have resulted from ambiguities within the text, which have so far kept it from being implemented.
Speaking at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Lavrov, Kerry made clear that, « Our two countries, the United States and Russia, reiterate our commitment to the sovereignty and the territorial unity of Syria, and to the full implementation of the Geneva communique ... we all have an interest in standing up against extremism. » 
This new-found Moscow-Washington concord reflects the international community’s acknowledgement that the Syrian regime will not stay in power and that the change of regime in Syria must come through exclusively political means. A return to the past is simply not possible, though a continuing downward spiral of events holds out the risk of the complete collapse, not only of Syria, but also the region.
Positions of the Regime and the Opposition : Opportunities for a Solution
The regime in Damascus was quick to interpret the Moscow-Washington agreement in its own way. Specifically, it made much of the fact that it was being invited to participate in the proposed international conference. For Assad’s regime, such an invitation spelled victory for its « dialogue » approach to solve the crisis, and a concomitant failure for the American precondition that Assad leave office before a political process can commence. In addition, the Syrian regime welcomed the US’s invitation that Iran also be a party to the prospective meeting, reading their invitation as support for its own policies, and an acceptance of its ally’s role in resolving the Syrian crisis.
The opposition’s response to the agreement, meanwhile, was characteristically and unsurprisingly varied : while some of its leaders rejected it outright, insisting that Assad’s departure must precede any dialogue, others within the opposition accepted it as a fait accompli, even before the details emerged. Such varied and uncalculated reactions point to the fact that most of the groups within the opposition were taken aback by the agreement, especially since they had been preparing themselves for the reception of further American assistance, and for the lifting of the arms embargo by Obama’s administration. The US, it seems, is considering lifting the arms embargo, particularly following confirmation of the regime’s use of chemical weapons.
The above notwithstanding, public pronouncements by both the regime and the opposition should not detract from the challenges that stand in the way of implementing the Geneva Declaration, including, most importantly, Assad’s refusal to stand down in favor of a fully empowered, transitional unity government. In addition, Syria’s security apparatus and the army have refused to pledge allegiance to such a government so long as Assad lives. Furthermore, the Syrian opposition has failed to put forward a unified vision for a future transitional phase, and their capacity to implement any sort of negotiated agreement, given its present state of fragmentation, remains ambiguous.
Were it possible to overcome such obstacles, further risks might complicate any international resolution to the Syrian conflict. These include the possibility that Syria may fall under international supervision, with the attendant possibility that this will codify a sectarian-based division of power along the lines of that imposed on Iraq following the 2003 US invasion. Without Syrian consensus on the need to change the present regime to one that is democratic and pluralistic, it is impossible to avoid such risks. The alternative would be for the conflict to continue, transforming into one between sub-national identity groups, which would drive each of the parties to seek foreign aid against their domestic opponents. The result of such a situation would take the form of reconciliations, thereby implying sectarian-based power sharing imposed by the international community.