Russian interests complicate peace talks

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Russian interests complicate peace talks

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In a speech this past week, President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he sees collaboration between the United States and Russia as a viable way to resolve the current conflict in Syria. Tensions have been high in the Middle East as both countries have moved to put troops on the ground. The U.S. and Russia are supporting different parties, but despite these key differences, progress may be on the horizon.

The conflict in Syria involves three main combatants: the current Syrian government, various groups of rebels looking to overthrow them and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly referred to as ISIS, which wants to overthrow the current government and establish a caliphate.

The U.S., Russia and other countries have, until recently, only provided air support, training, arms and funds. Russia has backed the al-Assad regime, the group currently in power in Syria, with the U.S. supporting the various rebel groups. Russia has nurtured a long-term relationship with al-Assad, and may see them as their last ally in the Middle East. The U.S. and Russia can, however, acknowledge the threat of ISIS, and both stand firmly opposed.

“The Obama administration has largely been hamstrung in its decision making because it doesn’t see many good options in Syria,” Scott Hibbard, a DePaul political science professor, said. “We’d like to see Assad go, but don’t want him replaced with a Jihadist regime. He’s reluctant to engage with one side or the other. Our main priority though, is to contain ISIS. Russia has made a firm commitment to backing the Assad regime.”

Apart from differing on whom they support on the ground, Russia and the United States have diametrically opposing foreign policies in regards to insurgency.

“Russia sees insurgency as instability, so as a matter of Russian foreign policy, they are against insurgency anywhere, even if those insurgents are fighting regimes that they see less than endorsable,” Richard Farkas, a professor at DePaul whose research focuses on Eastern European politics, said.

More than 250,000 Syrians have died as a result of the insurgency in Syria and more than 11 million others have been forced to flee, resulting in a major refugee crisis that European nations have been grappling with since the middle of July. As these nations try to address the rapidly increasing rates of immigration, Russia, the U.S. and other countries have tried to resolve the war through various means, though the two countries differ on how that resolution should look.

“Russian foreign policy is consistent when it comes to insurgency in that they view all insurgency as bad. The problem is that it’s difficult, if not impossible to know what these insurgencies will become if they come to power,” Farkas said. “American foreign policy, on the other hand, suggests that some insurgencies are good, and some insurgencies are bad. If they’re overthrowing a government we don’t like, we’ll support them.”

While it appears that Russia and the U.S. stand at very opposite ends of the conflict, there is reason to believe the U.S. and Russia can reach common ground.

“We are collaborating with respect to ensuring there are no airspace mishaps between each country’s fighter jet sorties. And as of late, Putin has been talking about the value of getting the Assad regime and the moderate opposition rebels to talk —which is something seen widely as a vital starting point to an eventual resolution to the Syrian crisis,” Alex Rodriguez, the Chicago Tribune’s Global Connections editor, said.

Farkas also said that there can be progress between the two countries going forward. “The Russians may not be on exactly the same trajectory as we are, but at least they’re trying to accomplish what we perceive to be the primary objective, which is to destroy ISIS,” Farkas said. “In that sense we’re on the same wave length, it’s the (other) objectives that we diverge on.

“What Russia is looking for (with the United States) is a partnership,” Farkas said. “A very complex one, but a partnership. Like most marriages, it doesn’t require everyone to see eye to eye on all issues.”