WASHINGTON, December 6 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) The rapidly escalating civil war in Syria—including the specter of chemical weapons being used—may be forcing the United States and Russia to set aside their deep disagreements in order to forge a resolution to the conflict, experts on US-Russia relations said Thursday.
“This may be a time where US-Russian cooperation can shine, because we tend to do a very good job when we basically have no other alternatives,” Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told RIA Novosti.
The two countries have been locked in a stalemate over the 20-month-old Syrian conflict.
The United States accuses Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crimes against his own people and has insisted that he step down.
Moscow, meanwhile, has said the fate of Syria’s leadership must not be dictated from the outside and has warned that intervention in the violence could result in a government takeover by Islamist militants.
But reports of Syrian rebels closing in on Damascus and warnings by US officials this week that Assad’s forces may be preparing a chemical weapons attack on its own people appear to have injected urgency into US-Russian efforts to prevent the violence from spinning further out of control.
“We have been trying hard to work with Russia to try to stop the bloodshed in Syria and start a political transition for a post-Assad Syrian future,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Thursday in Dublin, where she met with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The two top diplomats held a surprise bilateral consultation Thursday on the sidelines of a meeting by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Clinton and Lavrov met later in the day with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League peace envoy to Syria.
“Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways,” Clinton told reporters Thursday. “The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We’ve made it very clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons, and I think we will discuss that and many other aspects of what is needed to end the violence.”
US President Barack Obama has warned Syria that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and have immediate unspecified consequences.
At a Washington news conference on Thursday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked whether the chemical weapons threat appears imminent.
“We remain very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” Panetta said. “The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered.”
US media reported this week that Washington may be close to designating the Al-Nusra Front—a militant Islamist faction of the Syrian opposition—a terrorist group. This, together with reports that Assad’s government may collapse, may give both the United States and Russia an opportunity to say their positions on the conflict were correct from the beginning, Rojansky said.
Russia has repeatedly warned of the possibility that extremists could come to power in Syria, while Washington has criticized Moscow for steadfastly backing a leader fated to fall, he noted.
“Both sides are going to say, ‘I told you so,’” Rojansky said.
Despite the philosophical differences between the United States and Russia over a resolution to the conflict, the two countries have significant mutual interests in stemming the violence, said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
“Obviously we don’t want chemical weapons to be used against the Syrian population, and we want the violence to subside,” Stent told RIA Novosti. “And neither side wants a radical Islamist government to come to power.”
If the two countries can successfully work together to help halt the bloodshed and create a path for a peaceful transition of power, it could bode well for bilateral cooperation in a second Obama term, Stent said.
“This would be a harbinger of something more positive to come in US-Russian relations.”