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Searching for a Political Settlement to the Conflict

Last week, the Atlantic Council convened a panel to “discuss prospects for a political settlement to Syria’s civil war.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

It was moderated by the Council’s Executive Vice President, Damon Wilson, and explored the viewpoints of the U.S., Russia, and the U.K. Those countries were represented by Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; Igor Ivanov, the former Russian foreign minister; and The Right Honorable Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen, former UK minister of defense and NATO secretary general.

Below is an abridged version of the discussion. The full transcript can be found here.

Wilson: I’m going to turn to Ambassador Hof to ask him to kick us off and give us a sense of how he sees the current situation in the wake of an agreement on the chemical weapons.

Hof: Syria continues to hurtle at full speed in the direction of cataclysmic state failure. The implications of state failure for 23 million Syrians and for the neighborhood are actually quite appalling. Refugees will continue to flow. The body count will continue to climb. The economy will plumb new depths. And Syria will become, in essence, a passive host for all kinds of terrorist organizations that will plague the region and the world for years to come if the current course continues.

The Assad regime is consolidating itself in Western Syria alongside Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Alongside Mediterranean sea frontage, it’s in possession of several key urban areas in the western part of the country. The Kurds seem to be creating a sort of uneasy autonomous zone in the northeastern part of the country. And much of eastern and central Syria is dissolving into chaos as jihadist groups continue to marginalize those groups, armed and otherwise, that remain true to the original nonsectarian tenets of the – of the Syrian revolution.

Now, after a brief post-August 21st hiatus, the war on civilians has resumed in earnest, albeit without the use of chemical weapons. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria recently reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council that the regime’s practice of targeting civilian neighborhoods with artillery, aircraft, rockets and missiles is the biggest single driver of the humanitarian crisis affecting Syria and the neighborhood. And it also cited three jihadist units for similar behavior. The commission was quite categorical in describing all of this in the context of war crimes and crimes against humanity. And of course, 13 jihadist organizations recently declared their opposition to the Syrian National Coalition and to the sort of mainstream nonsectarian Free Syrian Army. So that pretty sums up the situation on the ground, at least as I see it.

In terms of diplomatic prospects for resolving this crisis, I think the prospects are dim at best.

Russia and the United States recently reached a framework agreement for the control and the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. And this has been buttressed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. As we speak, U.N. inspectors are arriving in Syria and checking into the Four Seasons Hotel, where I think they’ll (probably?) have no trouble finding accommodations.

Implementation of this agreement obviously is going to be fraught with difficulties. But its aim is good: to remove chemical weapons from the hands of a regime that over the years has established itself as a serial weapons proliferator and a regime which has used these weapons against its own people.

The real diplomatic challenge, however, in my view, will be to build a bridge from this chemical weapons agreement to something broader, something that seeks to resolve the Syrian crisis itself.

Wilson: Lord Robertson, you’ve had to negotiate with difficult actors. You’ve had to use force to advance diplomacy. You’ve dealt with implementing agreements, difficult agreements, issues of WMD. Let’s start first with the prospects of following through and succeeding implementing the chemical weapons agreement. Give us your sense of where the territory lays with that first.

Robertson: Up to now pretty well nothing has been happening until there was the use of chemical weapons, and all of a sudden we begin to realize that there’s something grave going on here. And what worries me – worried me when we debated it in the House of Parliament was that we seem to be ring-fencing the issues of chemical weapons but saying the rest of it simply goes on and we’ll simply wring our hands about it.

What I think now is happening, and what I think has got some good signs inside it, is the fact that Russia has accepted a degree of responsibility for what is happening. I think up to now – and I’ve argued with Russians – the Russian approach has been primarily negative. I think that the Russian government felt that in Libya they were duped. They stood back and allowed a resolution for an air exclusion zone and it turned into, effectively, regime change, and therefore there’s a hardened view that under no circumstances is President Assad going to be dealt with in the same way as Colonel Gadhafi was.

But now, with the appearance of chemical weapons and with the predominance now of the jihadis on the opposition side, I think Russia now recognizes that it’s got a very big and a nasty dog in this fight. And I think that is much to the good.

We haven’t actually solved much if all we’ve done is to ring-fence chemical weapons but say he can use every other method to scorch the earth and get rid of his opposition, because 100,000 people have died up to now without the use of chemical weapons. In fact, I don’t think that there would probably have been any inclination by the regime to use chemical weapons again. But a standard has been established which I think offers a degree of promise. And I think there’s now a responsibility on the United States and Russia in particular, but the Security Council in general, to actually deliver more than just the dismantlement of a chemical weapons arsenal.

Wilson: Mr. Ivanov, what’s the dynamic, from your perspective? How does – how does Moscow look at the situation? Do you feel a sense of responsibility, reality, viability of implementing the chemical weapons agreement and responsibility for taking this further on a political settlement?

Ivanov: After the Cold War we didn’t resolve any serious local, international conflict. What does it mean that after Cold War we, five permanent members who are responsible about the security – international security – we didn’t take any serious measures to create new mechanisms which can help us to resolve such a crisis? That’s why this is not only the responsibility of Assad, of the government of Syria or regional organization, but it’s our responsibility.

I think that today the main responsibility, if we speak about chemical weapons, is of the Russia and United States, because only our two countries can really resolve that problem. We cannot say this is the problem of United Nations, as some people say, or this is other countries. Only our two countries we have capacity to do this job, and we can. If we fail, we fail. We cannot blame, after that, Great Britain or France or the United States. We will have to blame our two countries that we – and this is big responsibility I think that – of both countries.

The second issue I think that’s very important: If you see a lot of analysis, you see that people say there is no trust – that we don’t have trust between Russia and the United States, between Russia and the Western countries. There is no trust. Sometimes I feel I’m coming from the Cold War, that during the Cold War we had no trust, and we have today for different reasons. This is not the subject of discussion today – meeting, but this is so because we cannot sit and take decisions together on many issues.

And during the – all major agreements in disarmament area were signed during the Cold War. And the – but how to create trust? By statements? Impossible. Trust you create only working together.

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