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Decoder: What the Obama-Putin Meeting Really Means

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin discussed Syria Monday on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. “Our positions do not fully coincide, but we are united by the common intention to end the violence and to stop the number of victims increasing in Syria,” Putin said. But with Obama backing the Syrian rebels and Putin the Assad regime, what will really come of talks between the two leaders?

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

We asked Elizabeth O’Bagy,* *Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War, to weigh in.

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I think as far as recent announcements go, it looks like the U.S. has made  a big decision that’s opening new doors. I think a lot depends on what they can achieve with negotiations and work for a political solution.

Personally I don’t expect much to come out of it. Russia has been very clear about its stance, and it has humored the U.S. as much as it’s felt the need to. But it has done little more than that. Nowhere in the two years since the start of the war has Russia made any significant endeavor to work with the U.S. or cooperate with the U.S. If anything, it’s ben the inverse. In many cases, people have talked about the Russians openly throwing Syria in the face of the U.S. and really challenging us on this issue.

Both sides are posturing a bit. Some of the statements going back and forth are so similar to what I learned in high school about the Cold War. Each side accuses each other of trying to up the ante. You already have both sides saying that negotiations are less likely because of the other’s actions. They’re setting a framework [so that] when negotiations [between Assad and the opposition] do fail, they can say ‘see, this is [just] the failure of the negotiations.’ Both sides can play each other that way. The hope is that Russia has some sort of interest in preventing Syria from this inevitable downward spiral. They don’t want to see a chaotic switch in reason. The U.S. is hoping to use that as a starting point in which there could be cooperation.

The point of the meeting is that both Russia and the U.S. can discuss how they want to play the negotiations —  what positions they want to take and how much they’re willing to push and prod the various side — the U.S. pushing the opposition, Russia the regime. The best we could hope for is that both of them decide it’s in their better interest to prevent chaos and spillover and both countries really push the opposition and regime to come to some sort of negotiation. And for obvious reasons, it will be very difficult. The U.S. itself has very little influence with the opposition and I suspect Russia has less influence with the regime than they’re willing to admit. So in terms of what will be accomplished in these meetings, we’ll see statements to the effect that they have come to some sort of agreement, but whether that actually pans out into genuine action is unlikely.

What the U.S. is really pushing is for Russia to take a stance against Assad. But I just don’t see Russia being harsher towards the regime, and even if it is, they don’t have significant leverage over regime decisions. Where it becomes much more critical is if the U.S. is able to work with Iran and see what they might be able to maneuver with the help of Iran.

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