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05/07/2013

Syria's tragic civil war: America and Russia's limitations

Putin - Kerry
Let's agree to disagree: John Kerry with Vladimir Putin. (AFP Photo Pool/Mladen Antonov)

Today U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow where he told the Russian president that he hopes they can find "common ground" on Syria because both countries have an interest in promoting stability in the region. 

The Russians are refusing to buckle under American pressure to stop supporting Syrian president Bashar Assad. The Americans want him gone but the Russians insist Assad's departure cannot be a precondition to peace talks with rebels. The disagreement is a major reason why the 2012 Geneva Communique, which sets out a peace plan, and which you can read here has gone nowhere. 

But how much influence do the Russians and Americans have on what happens on the ground anyway? 

I spoke to Professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University who blogs at Syria Comment and is one of the foremost experts on the country. His sober assessment in short: whatever the Russians and Americans agree to will not matter very much on Syria's streets, fields, and cities where the Syrians are killing each other with abandon. 

He told me: "The main problem is the Russians don’t control Syria and neither do the Americans. There are over 1,000 rebel armies none of which take orders from any supreme commander and if Russia told them to stop they wouldn’t stop. If America tells them to stop they wouldn’t stop. I suppose America could have more influence with Assad but if Assad said 'I want to compromise with the rebels' he wouldn’t get an answer. If he got an answer from one or two rebel armies he wouldn’t get them from the other 1,000."

The most lethal, and hence, powerful, rebel armies want Assad dead and they won't settle for anything less, he said. What this means for the unfortunate people of Syria is the killings will continue. 

Landis said: "The problem is there is no party that is responsible for the citizens of Syria. And so you can kill the citizens of Syria and everyone can wring their hands but no one can stop them. And a rebel commander who commands 5,000 or 10,00 rebels is not responsible for the deaths of all the Syrians so he has no obligation to come to the table and sue for peace.”  

READ MORE:  Canada's parliament set to debate the escalating Syrian war 

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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