With Putin and Obama Set To Meet, Can Dent Be Made in Syrian Suffering?

Could détente between Russia and the United States spell an end to the civil war in Syria?

Despite a series of miscommunications over what the actual focus of their discussion may be, both the Kremlin and the White House have now confirmed that a face-to-face meeting between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin has been tentatively scheduled for Monday, when both leaders will attend the annual gathering of the U.N. general assembly meeting in New York.

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The possible meeting on Monday recognizes the key role both the U.S. and Russia are playing in regions that have seen deep upheaval in recent years, with ongoing tensions in Ukraine as well as the deepening humanitarian concerns related to the civil war in Syria and the more protracted fight against the Islamic State as the primary topics.

While both governments remain coy about motivations and expectations, news of the meeting has spurred questions about whether renewed diplomatic efforts between the two large and influential countries will result in the furthering of much needed peace efforts, or whether—if mutual mistrust and finger-pointing cannot be overcome—diplomatic intransigence will deepen the already deplorable realities on the ground for the millions of civilians caught in the middle of ongoing fighting and military campaigns.

Russia has been requesting meetings for at least two years on the war in Syria. As Agence France-Presse reports, the scheduling of talks for Monday was seen by some as an important shift by the Obama administration, which may have realized that its imposed “isolation” of Putin on critical issues, especially the situation in Syria, was having a negative impact. That characterization, however, was not supported by White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest, who said it was the Russians who appeared “more desperate” for the meeting to occur.

“Naturally the top-priority topic will be Syria,” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, as he confirmed the meeting to Russian media. Peskov told reporters that Ukraine would be discussed “if time allowed.”

The White House, however, said the talks would be focused on Ukraine and Russia’s commitment to withdraw troops from areas near the eastern part of the country. Responding to Peskov’s comments, Earnest said, “There will be time [to talk about Ukraine].”

As the Guardian notes, these “mixed messages arguably offer a superficial taste of deep geopolitical divisions likely to be on display next week.”

And the geopolitical divisions surrounding the Syria crisis remain substantial. As Bloomberg reports on Friday, though the U.S. and Russia may have an elevated role, other players are also exerting their influence:

Meanwhile, with Russia recently bolstering its military support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with new arms shipments and trainers; with both the U.S. air campaign against ISIS and its strategy of arming of anti-Assad forces proving a disaster; and with the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis now at the center of attention in Europe—the failures of the status quo appear, at least to many foreign policy analysts, self-evident.

However, as the U.S. mainstream media goes through great pains to avoid highlighting the serious policy missteps and destructive outcome of the Obama administration’s clandestine and overt military operations in Syria, independent journalist Adam Johnson this week pointed out the importance of understanding that recent history.

“As the military build-up and posturing in Syria between Russia and the United States escalates,” Johnson wrote, “policy makers and influencers on this side of the Atlantic are urgently trying to portray the West’s involvement in Syria as either nonexistent or marked by good-faith incompetence. By whitewashing the West’s clandestine involvement in Syria, the media not only portrays Russia as the sole contributor to hostilities, it absolves Europe and the United States of their own guilt in helping create a refugee crisis and fuel a civil war that has devastated so many for so long.”

According to veteran journalist Robert Parry—recently recognized by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation with the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence—the meeting on Monday could represent an important opportunity for the Obama administration to re-calibrate its stance toward Russia while paving a diplomatic path on Syria.

A “late-in-his-presidency course correction” on Russia and Syria should be “obvious” at this point, Parry wrote recently. Such a step, he continued, “would include embracing Russia’s willingness to help stabilize the political-military situation in Syria, rather than the Obama administration fuming about it and trying to obstruct it.”

What would that possibly look like? Parry continued:

And, he concluded, “Given the severity of the crisis—as the refugee chaos now spreads into Europe—Obama doesn’t have the luxury anymore of pandering to the neocons and liberal interventionists. Instead of talking tough, he needs to act realistically.”