There could be a Russian key to progress at Geneva II

Two leading scholars of Russian policy have produced a fascinating and important analysis of how and why Russia might generate progress at the Geneva conference on Syria.

Keeping expectations very low for the Geneva II conference on Syria has so far been the way to avoid being disappointed by it, despite the hard work going into it and despite the agreement on humanitarian access in Homs. The focus at the moment both there and at the UN in New York is on broadening humanitarian access. That would be important but, like the agreement on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons, which has now missed its implementation deadline, it’s not the same as ending the war.

Now Ewald Boehlke and Pavel Baev argue that there is a link for Russia between the humanitarian issues that figure so prominently in western coverage of the crisis and the political settlement that most knowledgeable observers agree is the only way there will be a resolution of the crisis. That link is that “the wider humanitarian catastrophe carries with it threats to the peace process but also to security and stability in Syria and in Russia itself.” For example, Boehlke and Baev report that those allegedly responsible for the Volgograd bombings in December, killing over 30 people, “alluded to the war in Syria as a motivating factor.”

In other words, the humanitarian is political and it is a matter of security. Equally importantly, the logic works the other way.

At the extreme, Boehlke and Baev argue, lie scenarios of Syria’s chaotic dismemberment – what some have called ‘Somalisation’: “It would be folly to dismiss the idea of mini states arising, becoming havens for extremists.”

As they see it, a humanitarian deal won’t completely rule out those possibilities but “the lack of one will surely exacerbate the chaos that fosters such outcomes.”

These are two authors with an excellent track record of interpreting Russian foreign policy. It’s worth grasping their point here. The calculations in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin do not follow the same track as the views in the White House, Downing Street or the Elysee Palace, but they may well get to a place where it’s possible to do business together. And the credit that Russia will garner if it does open the door to humanitarian access will not be an irrelevant factor as its leaders weigh up whether to do it.

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