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U.S., Russia Try To Find Common Ground On Syria

Dec 6, 2012
Originally published on December 6, 2012 6:40 pm

As Syrian fighting intensifies in Syria, diplomatic efforts are also heating up.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the main international envoy to Syria were all in Dublin for an international gathering Thursday. The meeting came as Syria's opposition tries to get better organized to offer a real alternative to President Bashar Assad's regime.

The U.N. and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, says there were no "sensational decisions" made at the talks in Dublin. But at least the U.S. and Russia are looking for, as he put it, creative solutions.

Before the talks, Clinton also struck a relatively positive tone.

"We have been trying hard to work with Russia to stop the bloodshed in Syria and start a political transition toward a post-Assad Syrian future. And we very much support what Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to do," she said.

The U.S. and Russia have both raised concerns about the status of Syria's chemical weapons stocks this week, and Clinton says both realize how quickly things are changing on the ground.

"Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating and we see that in many different ways the pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing," she said.

Up to now, Russia has used its position on the U.N. Security Council to shield Assad's regime. But a French diplomat says the Russian position has been evolving in recent months. The official, who asked not to be named, says the Russians understand that Assad can't win this.

That's also the assessment of Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian exile who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

"So it does look like the Assad regime is going to be over soon, it's going to collapse ... fairly soon," Jouejati says. "If that is the case, if my assumption is right, that would at least in part explain a more moderate Russian position on Syria."

But Russia does have many concerns, says one expert, Yevgeny Satanovsky, who runs the Moscow Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow.

"We don't support Basher al-Assad — he's normal for this region — [a] dictator," Satanovsky says. "But the understanding that radical Islamism is not better than authoritarian leaders is, in Russia, absolutely clear."

The U.S. argues that radical Islamists make up only a small percentage of the rebel fighters in Syria, though the numbers are increasing as the conflict drags on.

The State Department is expected to announce soon that it will put one militant group, Jabhat al-Nusra, on a terrorism blacklist — a signal to secular opposition figures to keep their distance.

At the same time, the U.S. is planning to give a boost to opposition figures it prefers by recognizing the newly formed opposition coalition, the Syrian National Coalition. That's according to Jouejati of the National Defense University.

"The coalition is in the midst of putting together a transitional government; it has been recognized by several foreign governments and I think Washington is pleased with what it is seeing," he says says. "And I think fairly soon the Syrian National Coalition is going to be recognized by the United States as 'the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.' "

Jouejati expects that to happen next week in Morocco, at the so-called Friends of Syria meeting. France is already funneling aid to the opposition coalition, and the rebels hope that the U.S. and others will do that as well to show that there is an alternative to the Assad government.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As Syria's civil war intensifies, diplomatic efforts are also heating up. There's been little international agreement about how to respond to the bloodshed in Syria. So today, a meeting intended to break the logjam. In Dublin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat down with the United Nations' envoy on the crisis. Meanwhile, Syria's opposition is trying to get better organized to offer a real alternative to Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi says there were no sensational decisions made at the talks in Dublin. But at least the U.S. and Russia are looking for, as he put it, creative solutions. Before the talks, Secretary Clinton also struck a relatively positive tone.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: We have been trying hard to work with Russia to stop the bloodshed in Syria and start a political transition toward a post-Assad Syrian future. And we very much support what Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to do.

KELEMEN: The U.S. and Russia have both raised concerns about the status of Syria's chemical weapons stocks this week. And Clinton says both realize how quickly things are changing on the ground.

CLINTON: Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating and we see that in many different ways. The pressure against the regime, in and around Damascus, seems to be increasing.

KELEMEN: Up to now, Russia has used its position on the U.N. Security Council to shield Bashar al-Assad's regime. But a French diplomat says the Russian position has been evolving in recent months. The official, who asked not to be named, says the Russians understand that Assad can't win this.

That's also the assessment of Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian exile who teaches at the National Defense University here in Washington.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: So it does look like the Assad regime is going to be over soon, is going to collapse over fairly soon. If that is the case, if my assumption is right, then that would at least in part explain a more moderate Russian position on Syria.

KELEMEN: But Russia does have many concerns, says one expert, Yevgeny Satanovsky, who runs the Moscow Institute of the Middle East. We reached him by cell phone in Moscow.

YEVGENY SATANOVSKY: We don't support Bashar al-Assad. He is normal for this region, dictator. But the understanding that radical Islamism is not better than authoritarian leaders is, in Russia, absolutely clear.

KELEMEN: The U.S. argues that radical Islamists make up only a small percentage of the rebel fighters in Syria, though the numbers are increasing as the conflict drags on. The State Department is expected to announce soon that it will put one militant group, Jabhat al-Nusra, on a terrorism blacklist, a signal to secular opposition figures to keep their distance.

At the same time, the U.S. is planning to give a boost to opposition figures it prefers by recognizing the newly formed opposition coalition. That's according to Jouejati of the National Defense University.

JOUEJATI: The coalition is in the midst of putting together a transitional government. It has been recognized now by several foreign governments. And I think Washington is pleased with what it is seeing. And I think fairly soon, the Syrian national coalition is going to be recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

KELEMEN: He expects that to happen next week in Morocco, at the so-called Friends of Syria meeting. France is already funneling aid to the opposition coalition and the rebels hope that the U.S. and others will do that as well, to show that there is an alternative to the Assad government.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.