Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump agreed a joint statement on Syria on November 10 that said they saw no military solution to the conflict and a political one was needed to handle the crisis. The leaders informally met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Vietnamese resort of Danang. The statement on Syria had been coordinated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is a wide range of issues to discuss but the parties concentrated on the burning problem of crucial importance where progress can be achieved to serve the interests of both.
With Islamic State driven out from the territories it held, greater attention is turning to the prospects of peaceful settlement. The parties agreed to continue joint efforts to fight Islamic State and confirmed their commitment to Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. They will "maintain open military channels of communication" to ensure the safety of forces on both sides.
True, the jihadist group has been pushed out of its main strongholds in Syria in recent months by a combination of offensives involving the Syrian army and the US-backed Kurds-dominated coalition. It has just lost Abu Kamal - its last stronghold in Syria. Great progress has been achieved recently but the end of the war is still far away, actually, much farther than it seems. The conflict is smouldering but it can flare up any time.
The Syrian government forces have regained control over wide swaths of Syria in large part thanks to the Russian Aerospace Forces. But more than 40 percent of the country remains outside of the regime’s control, including the areas where most of its oil fields are located. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have no wish to leave the land they have captured from Islamic State, including the Arab-populated city of Raqqa. The areas outside of President Assad’s control include big chunks of northern Syria, as well as Deir al-Zour province in the east and Daraa in the south.
Clashes continue to spark across the country. A political process has not yet started. The international community is divided on the ways to achieve peaceful settlement. De-escalation zones encompass areas limited in size. The opposition is heterogeneous with sponsors of different groups pursuing their own objectives.
The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, initially scheduled on Nov.18, has been postponed. Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan are to meet in Sochi on November 13 to discuss the prospects of the initiative. Turkey raises objections over the participation of the Kurdish Democratic Union in the event. On October 31, the Russian Foreign Ministry said about invitations to 33 organizations to participate in the Congress. The UN-brokered Geneva process also hits snags on the way. It is actually stalled now.
The US, the UK, France and Germany raise the issue of chemical weapons allegedly used by the Assad regime to complicate the negotiation process.
With no urban areas held, Islamic State has “sleeping cells” to fight a guerilla war. For instance, the jihadists did not offer stiff resistance at Abu Kamal and left the town but they did not vanish. They can be bombed and shot at but munitions and bullets cannot destroy their ideology. No permanent defeat of IS is achievable without local communities countering the radicals and the ideas they spread. An international effort is the best way to address the root causes that bring about the rise of the terrorism.
Under the circumstances, Russia-US contacts are a crucial factor in finding a solution to the problem. Dialogue and compromises of all actors involved is the only way to move ahead. It’s not de-confliction and territory control only. The time has come to discuss the details of sending international aid to alleviate the suffering of civilian population. Who exactly will be responsible for distributing aid among communities and how is the process going to be controlled? This question is coming to the fore. Rebuilding trust, protecting people, supplying humanitarian aid and maintaining ceasefire are the tasks to tackle.
Syria is the place where Russian and US forces could clash as a result of an incident. It has been successfully avoided. De-confliction efforts have been by and large effective up to now. Coordination of nation building measures is indispensable and the presidents realize that. Despite geopolitical tension and mutual distrust, Russia and the United States are working together in some areas where their coordination is directly critical to global security.
Asked on November 2 about the prospects of meeting the Russian president at the APEC summit in Vietnam President Trump said “Putin is very important because they can help us with North Korea. They can help us with Syria. We have to talk about Ukraine.”
Syria was wisely chosen as an issue to be addressed at the APEC summit because it provides an opportunity to limit the damage in Russian-American relations. Like it or not, Russia is too important to make a dialogue imperative. The US president appears to realize this fact.