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Dunsmore: Syrian Update

The first-ever meeting between the Syrian government and some Syrian rebels ended without agreement - not even for modest humanitarian relief for desperate civilians.

The Syrians are now a month behind the agreed schedule to get their banned chemical weapons to the port of Latakia to be shipped off for safe destruction.

The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tells Congress there are now more than 26,000 foreign jihadists fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He says at least one of the al Qaida affiliated groups involved has aspirations to attack the American homeland.

There are new credible reports of human rights atrocities against the regime’s opponents, involving mass starvation and torture.

According to Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, this litany of disasters has led even Secretary of State John Kerry to conclude that Obama’s policy of essentially staying out of Syria’s civil war - is a failure. They say this is what Kerry told a bipartisan congressional delegation in an off-the-record briefing following a weekend Security Conference in Munich. Kerry’s spokesperson, and two Democratic senators also present at this briefing, claim Kerry didn’t say that.

Whatever Kerry may have implied, it’s clear that the president’s critics are pressing for significant escalation of American involvement. Here’s what they’re recommending: safe zones for refugees in Northern Syria, protected by U.S Patriot missiles in Turkey; substantial shipments of lethal American equipment to non-al-Qaida rebels; and U.S. drone attacks on terrorists groups within Syria.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the Syrian government will attend a new round of talks with the rebels next week. The Russians also said the Syrians plan to send a large shipment of chemical weapons out of the country this month and would complete the removal process by March 1st.

These announcements were made during a visit to Moscow by the non-al Qaida opposition leader of the Syrian National Coalition – interesting, in that Russia is Syrian President Assad’s principal patron. So what’s going on here?

Without doubt, Assad’s defeat by mainly Sunni, Islamic extremists linked to al Qaida would be highly troubling to Washington. Yet it would be equally unacceptable to Moscow and Tehran. For if even a “rump” of Syria were to become a terrorist haven - as Afghanistan had been leading up to 9/11 - this would be a serious threat to the Russians in their rebellious Islamic Caucasus states such as Chechnya - and to Iran which is the region’s major Shiite power.

The original al-Qaida has now disowned one of the main extremists groups battling Assad, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This portends new fighting between the ISIS and the Nusra Front which al-Qaida supports. But no matter who wins that power struggle, America, Russia and Iran have strongly shared interests that no group should succeed in creating a new Middle East terrorist state. And that common interest could ultimately form the basis for ending the human tragedy of the Syrian Civil War.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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