The joint Russian and United States announcement of a conference to bring together Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and opposition groups could be a decisive moment in a terrible civil war which has lasted over two years and caused some 70,000 deaths so far. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated the plan in Moscow on the night of May 7-8, and the meeting is likely to take place later this month. Mr. Lavrov says the aim is to enforce the Geneva communiqué issued on June 30, 2012 calling for the implementation of the United Nations six-point plan. The plan requires that violence cease immediately, and that any process towards settlement be Syrian-led; it also calls for the release of relevant detainees as well as freedom of association, the right to demonstrate peacefully, and freedom of the media. In addition, Mr. Kerry’s comment that he could not personally see how Mr. Assad could remain in power is a significant move away from the U.S. insistence that the Syrian leader step down, and towards the consistent Russian line that it is solely for the Syrian people to decide whether or not their President stays in office. The U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, says the Moscow announcement is “very significant” and the “first hopeful news” concerning Syria in a long time.
The reason for a renewed U.S. commitment to talks is probably that the civil war has clearly become a regional war. The Assad forces have long been aided by Hizbollah combatants from Lebanon and Iraq; the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), for its part, receives arms from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as U.S. funds for non-lethal equipment. Another complication is that the extreme Sunni group Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to replace the SNC as the main opposition. Nevertheless, Israel’s air attacks against Syria last week — the second such attack since January — reportedly on a consignment of missiles intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and on Syrian military installations, amount to a potentially deadly escalation. The direct involvement of Tel Aviv will only worsen the existing problem but has drawn no western condemnation; indeed U.S. officials have even approved of Israel’s attacks. Reports that the Damascus-based leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) is now readying itself for actions against Israel provides one indication of the difficult days which lie ahead if diplomacy is sidelined. The U.S. must ensure that its Israeli allies do nothing to undermine the forthcoming conference, which provides the embattled region with its best chance yet of avoiding a wider war.