US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have shown a willingness to compromise on Syria - and increase the pressure on the regime of Bashar Assad.
It's challenging to talk about political solutions when it comes to Syria. US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed at the G20 summit in Mexico that a political process had to be created to avoid a civil war in Syria.
"In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence," the two leaders said in a statement after meeting on the sidelines of the summit. "We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future."
The joint statement, which touched on a number of issues, said the two countries would support the efforts of the UN special envoy Kofi Annan, "including moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity."
It appears that the international community's previous course of action had nothing to do with politics. But if a serious political process still has to be created, the question arises why this decision has only been made now.
It's unmistakable that the United States and Russia have moved closer together on this issue, said Paul von Maltzahn, a former top German diplomat and executive vice president of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). The two powers are seeking a common solution - not least due to pressure by the world at large, he said. This could be an indication that Washington has changed its previous position on the Assad regime.
"While the United States has up to now placed a strong emphasis on a regime change from the very beginning, maybe they're now getting closer to a more realistic alternative: that a solution has to be sought together with the regime in the initial phase," Maltzahn said.
Assad's allies losing patience
For Assad, this means that he can count on remaining in power - at least for the time being. This also means that his politics of violence against his own population appears to have added up for now. Assad has made it clear to both Syrians and to the world that his opponents are no match for his military apparatus.
The decision by the UN mission in Syria to suspend its operations for the time being - though it will remain in the country - shows how right Assad's assumption was. The UN move buys Assad time to cement his military superiority to ensure his political survival. However, the joint US-Russian statement also shows that the Syrian leader is on the way to unduly straining the patience of his most loyal allies to date: Russia and possibly also China. Maltzahn said that this may have moved Russia to close ranks with the US on this position.
"If both countries now pull together, it could have more weight than Russia's policies to date," he said. "The country is no longer speaking for its own interests, but also in the interest of the international community."
It's likely that the continuing violence in Syria has become increasingly unacceptable to Russia, said Regina Heller from the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) in Hamburg. The joint statement, she said, showed that Russia no longer absolutely stood behind Syria and was willing to exercise greater pressure on the Assad regime.
"The understanding and joint statement with the US is a clear signal to Assad," Heller said. "Russia no longer protects the Assad regime through and through and is no longer committed to him. There is of course greater pressure on the regime as a result."
Pressure on Assad growing
It's unclear though how this signal is being perceived in Damascus. Does the joint statement provide a sufficiently strong impulse, or does it need related sanctions? The latter are always a sign of political hopelessness, Maltzahn said. At the same time, statements risk becoming simple declarations if they are not followed by consequences. However, he said he shared the opinion that Obama's and Putin's words sent a strong message.
"I do believe that it's important, if you look at the length of their discussions and perhaps also the choice of words in the statement it's evident that the Russian side is willing to exercise more pressure on the Assad regime," Maltzahn said.
This pressure could include a new UN resolution or stricter sanctions, Heller said. If nothing else, the statement could suggest to Assad that he soon will not be able to count on any allies anymore.
"The new position is certainly also a signal to the Assad regime that with the Russian, the Chinese position within the UN Security Council could also change," Heller said.
Willingness to compromise
The joint statement is evidence of how much the US and Russia have already moved closer together and just how willing they are to compromise. While the US indirectly suggests that is no longer categorically insisting Assad step down, Russia is taking political as well as economic risks with the stance.
The Russian economy has invested some 20 billion euros ($25 billion) over the past few years in Assad's Syria. In addition, Russia could lose its naval base in Tartus - a risk that already exists given Moscow's solidarity with Assad. Should the leader topple, his successor will hardly forget Russia's policy - and be inclined to act accordingly.
Threat of Islamist terror
Last but not least, Heller said Russia continues to stick by Assad for an entirely different reason. In Moscow there are fears that Saudi Arabia could gain more influence in the region once Assad falls, she said. There are concerns that the kingdom could be tempted to support radical Islamists.
"There are claims in Moscow that the terrorism in the northern Caucasus has also been supported by Saudi Arabia," Heller said. "There's clearly a vision of the danger posed by radical Islamists who could gain the upper hand after the Assad regime is toppled."
The joint statement by Obama and Putin has for the time being given the Syrian regime further leeway. Assad however can hardly use it as he thinks best. The pressure is on – for now verbally, but it is foreseeable that political steps will follow. The political process which both presidents wish for has been initiated by the joint statement. Now Assad has to show that he is able to interpret the new signals.
Author: Kersten Knipp / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge