Donald Trump’s debut at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday added a layer of unpredictability to the annual gathering, but few answers or ideas for solving the world’s most pressing humanitarian problem: the six-and-a-half–year war in Syria.
The global forum is supposed to provide a platform for world leaders to work toward a resolution of the conflict, but top US officials began the week on damage control, merely trying to prevent Moscow from killing US personnel in Syria who are supporting Arab and Kurdish militias.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hastily convened a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday after Russian warplanes bombed an area of eastern Syria where US special force advise the Syrian Democratic Forces, a key proxy force in the fight against ISIS.
During the meeting, US officials warned Moscow that similar bombing operations in the Deir el-Zour region risked killing US special forces, increasing the chances of a wider, direct confrontation between the two powers, a senior State Department official told BuzzFeed News. “That’s why it was especially important to recommit to deconfliction,” the official said, referring to a channel established between the two militaries to let the other know when aircraft or ground forces are operating near each other.
David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, told reporters on Monday that the US is now “confident that the deconfliction process … can succeed and move ahead.”
Satterfield briefed reporters following a Monday meeting of more than a dozen “like-minded” countries that met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to get on the same page regarding a political solution in Syria.
The meeting came amid a string of military successes against ISIS in Syria, prompting calls for the international community to work toward resolving the civil war and determining the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But the Monday meeting, which included the foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, did not include representatives from the pro-regime countries of Russia and Iran, diminishing prospects for a breakthrough.
“The real challenge is getting Russia and Iran to the negotiating table to work out a deal on the country’s future,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Absent a high-level discussion, the ministerial really doesn’t have much practical substance.”
Despite the pessimism, Satterfield argued that the prospects for a political resolution have markedly improved since the same “like-minded” group met last year.
“Violence is down dramatically,” said Satterfield. “The generation of new internally displaced persons is dramatically reduced, and, equally important, those displaced inside of Syria’s boundaries have returned in significant numbers.”
“We are focused now, all of us in the room, on a practical, realistic approach that can yield both the end of violence and the political process that is necessary for a stabilization of Syria to begin,” he said.
But besides agreeing on the importance of a political resolution to the conflict that leaves a unified Syria, diplomats involved in the ministerial told BuzzFeed News that little else came from the meeting. “This was purely of symbolic importance,” said one diplomat.
The nations agreed that a massive influx of international funds to rebuild Syria would not be forthcoming until Assad’s future was determined, Satterfield said. He also said the countries agreed that the timing wasn’t right for Kurdish referendum on independence in neighboring Iraq.
Some analysts said the prioritization of the anti-ISIS effort has come at the expense of finding a solution to Syria’s political crisis. “The Trump administration is determined to defeat ISIS, and that's it,” said Antoun Issa, a political analyst at the Middle East Institute. “There appears to be a de facto resignation that Assad, and his Russian and Iranian backers, are going to win the war.”
Satterfield pushed back against the idea that the situation in Syria was a zero sum game between the US and Russia.
“We’re engaged in working with Russia — it’s not a rivalry, it’s not a contest,” he said.