DAVID IGNATIUS: For Syria talks, a beginning

It shouldn’t have been this hard, but Secretary of State John Kerry finally has gotten Russia to back the peace plan on Syria that it endorsed in principle last June. This isn’t a breakthrough, but at least it’s a beginning.

What the U.S. and Russia seem to have realized is that a negotiated transition of power in Syria is better than a fight to the death, which would destabilize the region. That’s a wise judgment, but it’s not clear that it’s shared by either the Alawite clique backing president Bashar al-Assad or the Sunni jihadists that are the backbone of the opposition.

The U.S.-Russian formula, as expressed by one American official, is that Assad will step aside “as part of a political process once a transitional governing body is formed.”

Kerry described the common goal this way as he was standing next to Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart: “We’ve … affirmed our commitment to a negotiated settlement as the essential means of ending the bloodshed.”

Will the U.S. permit Iran to attend the international peace conference, as Russia likely will urge? The official U.S. position is that Iran shouldn’t attend. My guess is that President Barack Obama would bend if he thought an Iranian role would create a more durable settlement of regional tensions.

Will the Russians lean hard on both Assad and the Iranians? “We are not interested in the fate of certain persons,” Lavrov said obliquely Tuesday.

This peace plan, like so many others for the Middle East, is a bet that moderates can carry the day. With tragic regularity, this hope has proved to be misplaced.

A moderate rebel faction has finally begun to emerge behind Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the Supreme Military Council.

The challenge for Idriss is to show that he can back these sensible positions with enough military muscle that his moderate forces, not the jihadists, hold the balance of power. Idriss’ ability to deliver this command-and-control structure, in turn, depends on a real commitment by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to funnel all military assistance to the rebels through Idriss, not the jihadists. Here, American diplomatic pressure will be crucial.

For Russia, the Syrian endgame offers a test of President Vladimir Putin’s sincerity, and also of his clout.

The extremists also get a vote in this process, unfortunately. Hard-liners within Assad’s camp could step up their use of chemical weapons, hoping to set off a regional bonfire. Sunni jihadists could slaughter Alawites, in revenge for past attacks but also to torpedo a peace deal. Hezbollah and Iran could decide that their interests would be so harmed by Assad’s removal that they would rather torch Syria and take their chances. And Israel could continue its recent attacks, drawing Arab reprisals.

There are many ways this peace initiative could fail. But at least it has begun.

DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

David Ignatius

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