February 4, 2013

Munich — Syria is the world’s most intractable and dangerous problem. But two ideas emerged on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that could draw Russia into a more constructive role in solving the crisis, rather than allowing it to remain an obstructionist bystander.

Vice President Joe Biden arrives on the second day of the Munich Security Conference. (Christof Stache/ Getty Images)
Vice President Joe Biden arrives on the second day of the Munich Security Conference. (Christof Stache/ Getty Images)

Neither of these initiatives has yet yielded any positive results, and this still looks, unfortunately, like a war to the death. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his public comments at the conference, remained determinedly downbeat — and reaffirmed Russia’s opposition to any forced removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But let’s look at the new ideas for a moment, rather than the old intransigence:

• Vice President Joe Biden is said to have proposed, in his private meeting Saturday with Lavrov, that Russia and the United States work jointly to maintain secure control of Syria’s chemical weapons, in the event that Assad’s government should fall.

This idea of Russian-American cooperation to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction echoes one of the most positive joint efforts after the end of the Cold War, when the two countries worked together to keep the old Soviet nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of others. That effort was known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, named after the two senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, who authored it in 1992.

In the case of Syria, a joint effort to secure chemical weapons would reassure Russia that it will have a role in future security and stability in Syria and the region. It would also reduce the danger that these weapons might fall into the hands of the jihadist groups, such as al-Nusra Front that’s linked to al-Qaeda.

• Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib, the leader of the umbrella coalition group of the Syrian opposition, repeated Friday night in Munich his willingness to meet with acceptable representative of the Assad regime, “to ease the suffering of the Syrian people.” He had initially made this proposal early last week and was blasted for it by other, more hawkish members of the opposition. His willingness to repeat it, during a panel discussion I moderated here Friday night, was a positive sign. His statement was welcomed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative for Syria, who was also on the panel.

More encouraging was Lavrov’s response Saturday, after he met with Khatib privately. He called the Syrian opposition leader’s willingness to consider discussions with regime representatives “an important step” and said that Russia was prepared to keep working with the opposition to facilitate talks. The opposition must now decide who in the Assad regime has sufficiently “clean hands” to be a negotiating partner. This process, of separating “reconcilable” and “irreconcilable” elements of the regime is an essential step in any negotiated political transition.

Bluntly put, there’s no good way out of the Syrian crisis without Russian help. I wrote months ago that the unlikely mission of U.S. diplomacy should be to try to win a Nobel Peace Prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, if he can broker an end to the Syrian conflict. That’s a long shot, to be sure. But it was good to hear two new ideas for how Russia could play a positive role in Syria, rather than encouraging continued devastation.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.