An eight hour diplomatic marathon, preceded by months of talks and persuasions, and there you have it, first signs of a real agreement on the Syrian situation and an established path, even though tortuous and fragile, towards a political solution to the conflict.
These talks were the first ones of its kind, some even call them historical as 19 foreign minister travelled to Vienna to discuss the future of the war-torn state. The fundamental reason why this meeting was so important is that for the first time, Iran was called to participate after the de-frosting in its relations with the US due to the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” on Iran’s nuclear program (which was reached on the 14th of July in the format Iran, P5+1 (UN Security Council members + Germany) and European Union). The main advocate of Iran’s participation in this meeting was the Russian Federation that urged the other states to collaborate with one of the main regional powers of the area involved inthe conflict, deeply interested and with the potential to influence the outcome. The strongest opposition came from Saudi Arabia, the other regional power of the area with a long lasting history of fragile relations with Iran.
The real tangible result are nine points (in the final press conference Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, even joked how that is more than one point an hour) regarding all sorts of matters form humanitarian aid to the agreement that Syria has to be one single state but most importantly for the first time in an international document it is written that Syria has to hold general nationwide elections and transitional government has to be formed taking into account all the political forces. “The elections will be held with the presence of UN observers and all Syrian citizens will have to have the right to vote including refugees in Europe and neighboring [to Syria] countries” Lavrov said.
For a long time, the US and Russia couldn’t agree on the future of the current Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad with the US strongly insisting on his immediate departure and for elections to take place even in a war situation. Moscow’s stance was different, as the Russian government insisted that it was absolutely fundamental to keep the state institutions intact, therefore at least a temporary presence of Assad was necessary to avoid a Libyan scenario. This changed. Washington officially declared that they no longer insist on Assad’s immediate departure. They agreed to wait for elections even though they don’t see a political future for him.
It is remarkable to see how in the last months, after the events in Ukraine and the extremely low level in the relations between the two countries, Russia and the US are again able to work together. We can see this starting from the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program going through partial military cooperation in the Syrian skies (at least the establishment of a direct phone line between the two military commands and joint drills to practice air safety measures) and to finish off, the Vienna talks. All of this could be a sign of a midterm improvement in bilateral, and therefore global, relations.
The reached agreement immediately sparked discontent among the influential Republican opposition to PresidentObama, here is what the American JournalForeign Policy writes “the reality of that end deal [the agreement reached in Vienna] looks like this: Assad stays for transition, leaves with immunity, is replaced by Assad-lite alternative acceptable to Moscow and Tehran, and the United States gets a fig leaf of promise of a more inclusive Syrian government —one that is soon forgotten because everyone values stability above niceties like democracy or respect for human rights”.
Many experts say that Obama is in a tough situation: if he decides not to collaborate with Russia he might lose the possibility to influence Syria’s future, if he does collaborate he’ll have to face strong internal opposition. Probably to give a little sweetener to this opposition, Obama dispatched 50 special forces members to Syria. However, this obviously was not enough for Washington’s hawks. Influential Republican Senator John McCain in a special statement on his personal website blamed Obama for not having a real strategy for the Syrian conflict and the inability to face Russian and Iranian growing influence in the region. In my personal opinion the problem here is that America’s long lasting belief in its exceptionalism (both Republicans and Democrats agree on this) is obstructing its ability to face the challenges of a fast changing world in which America has become way too accustomed to being the only superpower and not having to coordinate its unilateral actions with other actors. Some America’s political and industrial elites are simply furious for having to play according to someone else’s rules, better yet, just to take someone else’s interests in consideration.
Clearly Putin’s Russia could be blamed for the same thing, but only at first, before giving a closer look to the situation. Let’s focus on an example and look at what happened towards the end of world war II in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire where a conference was held to establish new rules for financial and commercial cooperation between the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australasia and Japan. The Soviet Union at the time wasn’t that interested in this conference as it had its own communist economy and except oil and wheat deals there has been very little that linked the two systems up to the 90s. Two institutions were established during that conference the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Cooperation (which soon became part of what could be the World Bank). Nowadays west dominance in those institutions is manifest and this doesn’t take into account current states contributions to world economy. The Soviet union doesn’t exist anymore, there is Russia now and together with countries like China and India they don’t see them fairly represented on the world stage. This example focused on economy but we can find comparable situations in all fields. We are heading towards a multipolar world where new equilibriums have to be forged, this is inevitable. The “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” on Iran’s nuclear program and these Vienna talks are steps in this direction.