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Last push for peace

Kersten Knipp / groJuly 26, 2016

Russian and US negotiators are resuming Syria peace talks in Geneva. They hope to unveil a military cooperation plan for the war-torn country. Moscow and Washington have good reasons to reach a pragmatic agreement.

Syrien Angriffe Aleppo
Image: picture-alliance/AA/B. El Halebi

The city of Aleppo has been under siege for three weeks now as Syrian troops have cut off rebel held parts of the city. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically in that time. The remaining 300,000 people in Aleppo not only suffer from an acute shortage of food but also from Syrian air force bombings.

Talks in Geneva

Bente Stelle, Middle East expert and head of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beirut, says that the Assad regime believes it is on the path to victory. "It is clearly stronger than the opposition at the moment." However, she adds cautiously, "It seems to me that it feels stronger than it actually is." However, that psychological factor may add to the Syrian troops' determination to recapture the city, and consequently achieve a critical breakthrough.

Bearing this in mind, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov agreed to a new military cooperation plan on Tuesday on the fringes of a meeting in faraway Laos. The plan is to be revealed in the upcoming weeks. Staffan de Mistura, United Nations special envoy for the Syria crisis, is meeting together with US and Russian officials.

Russian news agencies cited Lavrov as saying that a political solution to the conflict requires direct talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. Representatives of the USA, Russia and the UN will meet later in Geneva to discuss further steps in the Syria conflict.

John Kerry mit Sergej Lawrow
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) with his Russian counterpart Sergei LavrovImage: Reuters/J. Silva

Under time pressure

Bente Scheller told DW that she does not have high expectations for these talks, adding that there have been many discussions like this in the past and it is unlikely that anything will change in August.

"The USA feels a certain pressure because it will soon be dealing with its presidential campaign. So there will probably be little time for foreign affairs. So on the US side, there is a certain pressure to make a strong push. But I do not think that something constructive will come of it, something that lasts."

For years, the US and Russia have had different views on Syria; in particular, on the political fate of President Assad. The differences compelled Western nations to exercise restraint as they did not want to aggravate the situation in Ukraine because of decisions made on the Syrian civil war. While the US demanded that Assad step down as a condition for political renewal, Russia stood by his side.

Syrien Aleppo Rebellen
Syrian rebels in Aleppo use makeshift mortars to defend the cityImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS

'A difficult ally'

Until now, no fundamental changes have been seen, said Bente Scheller. However, Russia's relationship with the Assad regime was never an easy one. "On one hand, Russia has an interest in supporting Assad and his regime. On the other hand, the regime has repeatedly shown that it does its own thing and that it is not only a difficult friend but also a difficult ally."

Moscow has become increasingly aware of the financial and political costs of supporting Assad. In fact, Russia's Syria policy has not made it many friends in the Sunni world, which, led by Saudi Arabia, opposes Assad and thus, by association, Moscow.

If the US is indeed working towards change in Syria, now would be the best time to do so. It is the last opportunity for the Obama administration to at least partially accelerate the end of the tragedy and also do something good for posterity's sake. Obama's policies and least of all, his reluctant stance on the Syrian War have had little impact on the Arab world.

Actual challenges come later

The Assad regime has benefitted greatly from US reluctance. Nonetheless, the government in Syria had gone through great trouble to turn the situation around to its favor, said Bente Scheller. The military has managed to push the opposition into a defensive position. Perhaps military muscle can break down the opposition. "But the most difficult part probably starts after that."