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München Sicherheitskonferenz - John Kerry
Image: Reuters/M. Dalder

'Russian rhetoric jeopardizes Syria peace deal'

Michael Knigge
February 13, 2016

Things have changed in Munich just two days after a peace deal for Syria was finally reached. The mood was cautiously optimistic but Russia's stance appears to have made peace in Syria elusive all over again.


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier tried to soften the blow dealt by the remarks of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who on Saturday had told the Munich Security Conference (MSC) that the world had "slid into a new Cold War."

Steinmeier rejected that notion, saying that "what Medvedev meant to say is that we need to avoid a new Cold War."

And Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, did not appear too keen on the idea either. "We don't look at what is happening as a Cold War," he told DW, "and no one in NATO wants to return to a Cold War."

But the damage was already done.

'Pouring gasoline'

It wasn't just that one statement by Russia's prime minister that altered the sentiment at the MSC. More concretely and more importantly, Medvedev denied outright that Russia was targeting civilians in Syria, a remark that makes the negotiated end of hostilities in the country within one week appear almost impossible.

"I've got to say I was quite shocked by that statement," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told DW. "It's as if Medvedev is living in an alternate reality."

Nicholas Burns, a former US undersecretary of state and now a scholar at Harvard University, told DW that he found Medvedev's remarks cynical: "They profess to have peace in mind, and yet they are pouring gasoline on the fire."

If Medvedev's remarks hadn't already dampened the mood at the MSC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov further dashed hopes for a quick truce in Syria - as well as hopes for an improvement in his country's international relations. Lavrov said the United States and Russia would first have to establish a regular military dialogue in order for a cessation of hostilities to be put in place in Syria.

Despite the MSC's tribulations, Lavrov (left) and his German counterpart, Steinmeier, found time to share a collegial grinImage: Reuters/M. Dalder

Lavrov also urged the United States and Europe not to write off Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that "no one should be demonized - except the terrorists."

When asked by MSC chief Wolfgang Ischinger to rate the likelihood of an end of hostilities as put forth in the plan by the International Syria Support Group, Lavrov, after a long statement, said 49 percent. To which his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, replied that, judging by Lavrov's remarks, the real percentage was closer to 0. The British foreign secretary himself estimated the likelihood for success at 51 percent.

Asked about his perception of the lenghty remarks by Russia's top diplomat, Burns said: "Lavrov seemed to indicate in his speech here that he is upset that people want to convince Russia to stop bombing."

The statements made by the Kremlin's emissaries overshadowed US Secretary of State John Kerry's final appearance at the MSC as President Barack Obama's top diplomat. Deservedly so, because Kerry's remarks were pretty much standard fare as he went down the laundry list of international issues that the United States was dealing with - from the civil war in Ukraine, the refugees in Europe and a possible Brexit to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and Syria. To be sure, though, without naming Russia, Kerry called on the country to stop its bombing campaign in Syria.

But the general message that Kerry and his German and British colleagues were trying to send was one of hope and conviction that their trans-Atlantic union could weather the current crises. "We are doing just fine," Kerry said in his closing remarks.

This message of hope, however, appears increasingly out of touch, especially as an end to the carnage in places such as Aleppo is still not in sight. That it has come to this is also the fault of the United States and Europe, Burns said: "We elected not to be significant players in Syria, we have avoided engagement there, and that left the field open to Russia."

Given today's developments at the MSC, it seems like the fate of the peace plan may be sealed just days after it was signed after a late-night session also here in Munich. "I would be surprised if this agreement would be fully implemented," Burns said, "and that's a tragic situation for the people on the ground."

Human Rights Watch chief Roth agreed: "I fear that this cessation of hostilities is never actually going to take hold, and then we're back to square one."

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