There is a virtue in modest expectations.
When the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, met the veteran Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow this week, few expected any great meeting of minds, let alone any progress on the most intractable issue currently separating the two countries – the civil war in Syria. In the event, however, there was a measure of agreement, which should find its expression in a peace conference to be held as soon as the end of this month.
There is room for caution. Agreeing to hold a peace conference and actually holding it are two different things. The timetable, and with it the sense of urgency, could slip. And even if such a conference is held, it will only highlight how much time has been lost. A conference in Geneva last June produced an accord on the creation of a transitional government in Syria. But it was never implemented, because of disagreement about the role, if any, of President Bashar al-Assad. Russia wanted him included; the US insisted he be left out.
Increased violence in recent months, disputed evidence that one or both sides may have deployed nerve gas, last weekend’s Israeli air strikes inside Syria and the growing number of refugees have all combined to fuel fears that the conflict could spread beyond Syria’s borders. Such fears may have concentrated minds, bringing concessions from both Washington and Moscow. After their Moscow meeting, both Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov seemed less concerned to defend their previous positions and in agreement that any decision on transitional arrangements had to rest with the Syrians.
None of this means that the warring sides will agree to sit around the same table – or make progress if they do. A further difficulty is that the rebels have so far been unable either to make a decisive breakthrough or to unite as a prelude to governing. But the choice between an escalating war, which they are not yet winning, and a transitional plan, with international guarantees, should be no choice at all.