Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

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Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said.

Amid the current stalemate, the United States has “got to raise the stakes on humanitarian aid [access to Syria] to the same temperature and put [it] in the spotlight,” Kaine suggested. “To change Russia calculations [and] change the equation in the UN Security Council…[we] need to raise public outrage to get a breakthrough.”

“There’s a sense that a transition on leadership will be harder than humanitarian,” Kaine said. “Let’s battle on [the] humanitarian [front now, given there’s a] sense of world [outrage] on that one.”

“We are not happy with the process,’ on a Syria political transition, Kaine said, referring to discussions among members of Congress. “There are a lot of discussions of what more can we do.” Regarding possible increased military support to the opposition, though, Kaine, who is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “the opposition is fractured. I met with a bunch of NGOS, [that will go unnamed], who don’t think that arming the opposition is the credible [option] right now. It’s too complicated who gets it. But they do believe aggressive humanitarian relief can be done in the right way to accomplish” results.

Looking ahead to his trip, Kaine said his consultations in Israel and Ramallah have three main tasks: to visit some of the security efforts such as Iron Dome to reaffirm the importance of the US Israel security relationship. Kaine and King plan to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon Sunday to discuss the ongoing status of discussions with Iran, Kaine said. They will also meet with the lead Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss peace discussions to move towards a two-state solution.

“We both just want to eyeball the key actors and tell them how important it is to the US,” Kaine said of the effort to advance a two state solution. “It’s going to be difficult to get from here to here, but it’s a better opportunity than we have had in a long time. We really support Kerry’s vigorous diplomacy, and it’s a matter of huge importance and we want both leaders” to walk away with an understanding of that. The Senators will also meet with Palestinian business leaders and former Israeli ambassadors.

Kaine, who met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington this week as well as with the Israeli and PLO ambassadors to Washington, said he heard “high praise” from all three for Kerry’s peace efforts. Jordan’s King Abdullah “was filled with praise,” for Kerry, Kaine said.

Kaine’s trip to Cairo “will largely be focused on the security situation in the Sinai,” how to gauge progress on Egypt’s constitutional formation, preparations for presidential and parliamentary elections, basic human rights issues and the US-Egypt military to military relationship.

Regarding Russian President Putin’s reported endorsement yesterday of Egyptian General Sisi’s as yet undeclared candidacy for president and a reported $3 billion Egypt Russia arms deal in the works, Kaine said he was not alarmed. “Look, the Egyptian economy has got a lot of problems. And frankly I don’t view it as a problem whether the Gulf state countries or Russia or others, if they want to be helpful with the security situation or to make the economy be stronger.”

“Vladimir Putin is a little more naked in his willingness to consider other countries as a means to his own ends,” Kaine observed. “We [the United States] have had our own era of the great game where frankly our interactions [with other countries] were driven pretty clearly by our self-interests more than theirs. We are a little bit more into this post cold-war era of multi-lateralism [and] partnerships.”

The current U.S. approach, emphasizing engagement and working in partnership with other countries, is driven both by “resources, but also what’s more likely to be successful” Kaine said, noting it is reflected as much in Congressional attitudes as in the inclinations of the Obama White House.

Counter to the narrative he heard from Gulf countries at the Manama Dialogue in December, the United States “played a leadership role in NATO activities in Libya, we were willing to take military action [practically] alone in Syria, diplomatically [the U.S.]… is reinvigorating classic American diplomacy in the Middle East [to a greater degree] than in a long time. Trade is up, foreign direct investment is up… The U.S. is not disengaging.”

On prospects for Israel and the US to narrow differences on what would be acceptable in a final Iran nuclear deal, Kaine said those discussions were just beginning and there would be time for deep consultations on the matter. The Senate is also considering weighing in, he said.

“Once the energy, do we need to do a sanctions bill is now evaded, the next issue is maybe, what [to] do is define what the ultimate deal” should accept, Kaine said, while cautioning, “With some realism. We can’t get too proscriptive in a way that would tie up the negotiators’ hands.”

Kaine weighed in last month against an Iran sanctions bill that was fiercely opposed by the White House, but at a Senate hearing this month defended the good intentions of those on the other side of the debate from charges of war mongering. His passionate case for aggressive U.S. diplomacy and defense of different views on the Iran debate lifted a veil of tension that had hung over the body in recent weeks as the bill’s advocates sought and failed in efforts to get a veto-proof majority to force a Senate vote, and drew praise from several other members. Some suggested on Twitter that Kaine might be someone to watch as a Democratic vice presidential contender in 2016, from a key swing state.

“Everyone wants the same thing, a non-nuclear-weaponized Iran, [achieved] diplomatically, not militarily,” Kaine said Friday. “If we had the ability to do that, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, would say this is great…Nobody here wants to see it default to the military option for eliminating a weapons capacity.”

(Photo: Senator Tim Kaine joined Senators Cornyn (R-TX), Cochran (R-MS), Sessions (R-AL), Boozman (R-AR), and Fischer (R-NE) on his first CODEL to visit troops in the Middle East, discuss developing issues in the region, and the transition process in Afghanistan, in July 2013.) .