The Cable

Big Losers of the Obama-Putin Flame War: Ordinary Syrians

When it comes to Syria, peacemakers and interventionists agree on one thing: The cancellation of talks between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin bodes poorly for ordinary people trapped in a horrific civil war.

On the eve of a cabinet-level meeting between Russia and the United States, the White House is taking heat from all sorts of Syria-minded activists for refusing to engage with the Kremlin at the highest levels. U.S. officials say prospects of producing any agreements with Putin were already slim; so why reward him with a photo-op? But activists say the costs of not engaging are too high.

"Lack of communication will make the situation on the ground worse, not better," Dan Layman, director of media relations at the Syrian Support Group, tells The Cable. Layman's group wants Obama to confront Putin on his stonewalling at the United Nations and delivery of helicopters, tanks and missiles to the Assad regime. He also wouldn't mind if Washington threw the rebels a missile or two. Better yet: a No Fly Zone.

But other activists want nothing do with weapons. They'd like both powers to pressure Syria into allowing aid groups broader access to the 6.8 million people the United Nations says are in need of humanitarian assistance in the region. Despite an agenda that's very different from the hawkish Syrian Support Group, the frustration is the same: We need Obama at the table.

"President Obama's failure to prioritize a meeting with President Putin to discuss peace in Syria was a reckless move," said Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America's humanitarian policy manager. "We encourage presidents Obama and Putin to drop the political theater and, instead, demonstrate leadership in search of ending the bloodshed in Syria."

But on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney poured cold water on the idea that a meeting between Putin and Obama would accomplish anything. "Summits of leaders tend to be designed around making progress on significant issues,"  Carney told reporters. "And we had not seen that progress sufficiently on a range of issues to merit a summit."

At her briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama's entire national security staff was on the same page. "There was unanimous support for the decision not to - within the National Security Council not to hold the summit," she said. "The point was made - and this is one the Secretary definitely agrees with - is that ... we were not at the point in our progress on a number of these issues where a summit at the presidential level was the most constructive step."

To Oxfam's Noah Gottschalk, that's simply unacceptable, given the need to bring the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime together for peace talks in Geneva. "Putin and Obama meeting wouldn't have solved everything, but it could've gotten the ball rolling towards meaningful talks," he said, calling from the Beirut international airport. "People in the region were hopeful. They saw it as important opportunity for high-level discussions. But what they got is a decision to put petty politics over the lives of Syrians." 

At the same time, administration officials reject the idea that only heads of state can somehow work toward a peace conference. Not only will Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel bring up Syria with their Washington counterparts in Washington on Friday, but lower-level officials will work toward peace talks as well. "Ambassador Ford is in Paris today and tomorrow," said Psaki at Thursday's press briefing. "He's meeting with members of the Syrian opposition to discuss the prospects of a Geneva conference. We remain committed to helping Syrians negotiate a political settlement along the lines of the June 2012 Geneva communique."

But for the activists, the protracted nature of the conflict is proof enough that the crisis calls for top-level engagement. "Sure, they're not going to forge an immediate solution, but right now, we're just going backwards," said Gottschalk.

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