The one concrete result to emerge from presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s informal meetings on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam has been the Nov. 11 U.S.-Russia Joint Statement on Syria. This latest bilateral diplomatic effort has elicited some official optimism, but what does it amount to really? Does it represent a promising step forward to end the strife in that war-torn land and “save tremendous numbers of lives,” as Trump indicated in his comments to reporters on Air Force One (and via his Twitter feed)? Does the statement provide a workable roadmap for effective American-Russian collaboration and coordination? Is it, as Putin’s spokesman characterized it, so clear in its language that it “does not require comments” and is not open to multiple interpretations? And is this latest addition to a long list of statements, protocols and announcements that have been hailed as groundbreaking efforts to end the fighting in Syria really going to make the difference this time around?
The statement builds on previous modest steps that Russia and the United States have achieved: the use of de-escalation zones and limited cease-fires to tap down fighting; the continuation of the all-important de-confliction efforts to ensure that U.S.- and Russian-backed forces don’t engage in direct clashes or, if an incident occurs, it can be quickly addressed to prevent unintended and unwelcome consequences; building on efforts undertaken with Jordan to stabilize southern Syria and maintain tenuous truces between pro- and anti-regime forces; and ostensible support for focusing on the complete destruction of the remnants of Islamic State and getting a post-conflict political reconciliation process underway. However, just as with the agreements reached between Russia and the United States over Syria during the last year of the Obama administration, this latest statement, contrary to Peskov’s comments, is indeed open to multiple interpretations because both sides continue to use vague language and terms deliberately left undefined to accommodate the still considerable divergences between Washington and Moscow over Syria’s future.