Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

With the Trump administration soon entering office, it is important to highlight increasingly rare U.S.-Russian non governmental engagements.

I recently participated in the Carnegie Endowment-supported “Task Force on Regional Conflicts.” The topic was Syria, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Its goal was to develop several joint recommendations to forward to each government for consideration. Delegations included ambassadors, businessmen and academics, and the participants all had worked on aspects of U.S.-Russian, Middle Eastern and Afghan affairs.

A key observation was when groups armed with rigid talking points and preconceived, mistrustful perceptions initially meet, rarely is there any headway if the encounter is just for a few hours. For progress, such groups must be immersed for several days, including meals. Over time, familiarity and resultant understanding increase while mistrust erodes, enhancing credible problem-solving.

All concurred that Syria should present no existential threat to either nation but risks are increasing of an escalatory military accident or incident. Importantly, they agreed both nations are being exploited by sectarian interlocutors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, interests mostly converge.

While not empowered, the fact that the group developed some joint recommendations received at a high level by both governments during a tense period of limited official contact made this a highly worthwhile effort.

Peter Zwack, Washington

The writer, a retired brigadier general, teaches at the National Defense University.

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