At the outset, expectations that the recent G-8 summit in Northern Ireland might narrow U.S.-Russian differences on Syria and advance prospects for a negotiated settlement were decidedly and deservedly low. But contrary to what is being reported in much of the media, which has zeroed in on the absence of references to Bashar al-Assad and his fate, the communiqué can arguably be seen as a significant step forward and a major shift in Russia’s position.
Before the summit, Russia and the U.S. had long been sharply at odds over a number of key issues, including the status of the Assad regime, who should participate in talks, and what should be on the table.
The meeting opened in the wake of significant gains on the ground by the Assad regime, whose military was buttressed by the presence of Hezbollah fighters. The EU and the U.S. also had made decisions to provide weapons to select groups within the Syrian opposition, moves that provoked blunt criticism from Russia. At a pre-summit press conference, the body language of Presidents Obama and Putin underscored the tension. They barely looked at one another as they made their prepared statements and responded to questions.
These stage setters make the positive language of the final communiqué all the more surprising.
The language suggests a significant shift by Russia in the direction of the U.S. interpretation of the Geneva Framework negotiated in June 2012. Whether the communiqué also signals a new break in Russian relations with the Assad regime remains to be seen, but the possibility should be explored—and exploited—by the Obama administration in the weeks ahead.
The key language is contained in paragraph 84 of the final G-8 communiqué, as follows:
We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria. We strongly endorse the decision to hold as soon as possible the Geneva Conference on Syria to implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which sets out a number of key steps beginning with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent. As the Geneva Communiqué says, the public services must be preserved or restored. This includes the military forces and security services. However all governmental institutions and state offices must perform according to professional and human rights standards, operating under a top leadership that inspires public confidence, under the control of the transitional governing body.
What this represents, in practical terms, is nothing less than Russian agreement to the transfer of full executive authority to a transitional governing body in advance of negotiations. Russia has also reaffirmed its commitment to the principle of “mutual consent” in determining not only who will represent the regime and the opposition in negotiations, but also in the composition of the transitional governing body, thus ensuring that Assad himself, his inner circle, and those with “blood on their hands” will be excluded.
True, the document does not say explicitly that Assad must step down. Or that he must give up his title. Yet if Russia is committed to the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive authority, on the basis of mutual consent, the issue of whether Assad is formally removed from power becomes largely irrelevant.
Under the arrangements envisioned by the G-8, Assad will be a marginal figure, stripped of his power, unable to affect the deliberations of a transitional governing body, and subject to future prosecution.
The sequencing established in the communiqué is also important. The decision to transfer authority to a transitional governing body is not to be an outcome of negotiations, but must occur before negotiations begin. Almost inevitably this means a delay in the start of negotiations. But this too is of secondary concern if, once they do begin, they take place under conditions that are more likely to lead to a meaningful political transition for Syria than seemed possible prior to the G-8 meeting.
Why Russia agreed to this language is uncertain. Perhaps it is the result of the new resolve shown by the U.S. and the EU in agreeing to arm the rebels. Yet having done so, Russia is now in the position of having to convey to its clients in Damascus that they must prepare themselves to give up power to a transitional government, and to do so relatively soon. One can only imagine the tenor of the conversations between Assad and Russian Foreign Minister Lavarov that followed the communiqué’s release.
For the potential gains of this communiqué to be realized, however, will require that the U.S. and the EU apply pressure on Moscow to deliver Assad’s agreement to the G-8 terms. A key part of this strategy will be to continue to escalate pressure on the battlefield by providing weapons to appropriately vetted armed groups, and taking other steps that wear away at the regime’s confidence about its future prospects.
The communiqué even contains additional language that hints at shifts in Russia’s position and a potential break with the Assad regime. Addressing the presence in Syria of extremist groups and terrorists, the communiqué calls on “the Syrian authorities and opposition at the Geneva Conference jointly to commit to destroying and expelling from Syria all organisations and individuals affiliated to al-Qaeda, and any other non-state actors linked to terrorism.”
In referencing all non-state actors linked to terrorism, and by not providing an explicit definition of what constitutes a terrorist group, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Assad’s key ally, Hezbollah, is among the non-state groups to which the communiqué applies. Moreover, in taking such a tough line against al-Qaeda, the communiqué suits the political purposes of the EU and U.S. by underscoring their opposition to such groups following their decisions to provide weapons to Syrian rebels.
In addition, the G-8 called “on all parties to the conflict to allow access to the UN investigating team mandated by the UN Secretary General . . . in order to conduct an objective investigation into reports of use of chemical weapons.” Since the Assad regime is the principal obstacle to full access by the UN team, it is again difficult to avoid the conclusion that the full G-8 group, including Russia, is putting the regime on notice.
To be sure, it is a long way from a G-8 communiqué to meaningful diplomatic results and concrete change on the ground.
The critical task now is applying all available diplomatic and other tools to secure the Assad regime’s approval of the terms of the communiqué, and to make clear that the consequences of its refusal to accept them will be severe.
Steven Heydemann is senior advisor on Middle East Initiatives at USIP.