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As diplomats ready for Syrian talks, what unites organizers Russia and U.S.?

January 21, 2014 at 6:13 PM EDT
The Syrian peace talks are set to begin, but diplomatic drama is brewing. Without shared goals and some rancor over Iran’s role, expectations are low. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Hari Sreenivasan from Switzerland to discuss what major players Russia and the U.S. have in common going into the talks.

GWEN IFILL: Hari Sreenivasan is in New York and spoke with Margaret a short time ago.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Margaret, we have been waiting for this meeting for quite some time. What are the expectations?

MARGARET WARNER: Hari, I have to say, by the standards of international conferences like this, the expectations are pretty low.

That is, there is really no shared — there is no shared sense of what the goal is when you talk to the two adversaries here, the Syrian government and the opposition. But tomorrow is a set of speeches. The hard bargaining in Geneva on Friday.

And the hope by the United States and the U.N. and most of the countries there is that at least you will get a united chorus from the 30 or so different countries that are speaking tomorrow that the answer is not a military solution, but a political solution. And they hope that the two adversaries will hear that and that when they speak there will at least be some sense that they, too, want to pursue that, even though they have very different end states.

Their visions are very, very different. Secretary Kerry’s theory has been for some time now that if you could at least get these two warring parties to sit down for the first time face to face and commit to continuing negotiations in Geneva without any particular time limit or deadline, that they could begin to find a way forward.

That said, a senior U.N. official said to me today, you know, as you said, Hari, they have worked so hard to get this conference together. But he said there are so many different — there are so many traps here and so many different actors. And he said, I’m really not an optimist.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so tell us a little bit what happened yesterday, Ban Ki-Moon inviting Iran then uninviting Iran? Why?

MARGARET WARNER: I am told by people close to him that he began with the premise that this conference won’t really be successful, that is, there is no resolution to the conflict, without Iran’s participation because they are such major backers of President Assad. They supply weapons, they supply trainers.

They have gotten Hezbollah militias to come in and fight for him. They have sent fighters from Iran itself. And so they had to be part of it. Then I’m told Ban was told himself by the Russians and then by the Iranians that Iran was ready to accept the basic premise of this conference, which is that the ultimate — this to set in motion a process that will ultimately lead to a transitional governing body, pave the way to a new government in Syria.

And so Ban thought he would make this announcement and that, within an hour, there would either be written or a verbal statement from Iran saying they welcome coming to the conference and they accept this premise, they join in this premise. Instead, all they got was a letter or a statement saying, we’re very happy to come.

So Ban was upset. Then, of course, he came under tremendous pressure yesterday from Secretary Kerry, from the Syrian opposition, which said it would boycott the conference, and also from the Gulf state led by Saudi Arabia that they, too, would boycott. So, he had a choice, hold a conference with Iran there, but one of the two major adversaries not there. And so, given that choice, he rescinded the invitation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So let’s talk a little bit about the two conveners of this conversation, the U.S. and Russia. They have very different takes on Syria. What do they agree on?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hari, you’re right. They have different takes, but they are also essential to one another. This conference wouldn’t be happening without the two of them.

Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have really worked hard on this, with Secretary Kerry pressuring the Syrian opposition to come, and Lavrov really pressing and pressuring the Iranians to help him persuade the Syrian government to come.

They also share the view that there can only be a political solution, and they share concern about the growth of all of these jihadi terrorist groups, these fighters that have been attracted, as if Syria were a magnet to the conflict there and are getting training and weapons and connections that would make the U.S. and Russia both more vulnerable to terrorist attack down the line.

But, as we know, Russia has been Assad’s main defender on the U.N. Security Council. It’s resolutely stood in the way of tough sanctions or any resolutions demanding humanitarian access, and the bottom line is that Russia’s got longtime interests in Syria, it doesn’t want to lose Syria as at least very friendly, if not quiet state, and it has a kind of visceral reaction against any thought of forcible regime change anywhere by the outside world, by the Western powers, after the Libya experience.

And so, almost reflexively, Russia reacts negatively when it senses something like that is in the works, especially if it’s led by the U.S.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Hari.