Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad at a meeting at the Kremlin, Oct. 20, 2015.Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti
Moscow's diplomatic moves to kick-start the process of political settlement inside Syria and over Syria, launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow on Oct. 22, seem to be paying off. In the wake of the talks in Vienna and days after Assad was welcomed in the Kremlin, the ad hoc quartet comprised of the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey has inched forward. Washington has not ruled out broadening the format of talks by adding Iran, the lord protector of Bashar al-Assad, and the archenemy of the Sunni axis nations.
What’s more, Moscow, which until the last month had kept a low profile in the conflict, has stolen the show for the moment by bringing more and more regional actors into the picture.
Moscow has spearheaded the idea of holding parliamentary and presidential elections in the war-torn country, which have remained unreported in the pro-government Syrian media, as a Moscow-based expert on the Arab world revealed to Troika Report. It has also declared its readiness to engage with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels.
In sum, these moves highlight the Kremlin’s pro-active double-track policy of setting the stage for a final settlement of the Syrian drama, hoping to avoid being bogged down in the hostilities as the USSR was in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It also gives Russia a chance of overcoming its present isolation by engaging the West in a political process in which it has a high stake.
In the aftermath of Assad’s surprise visit to Moscow, the flurry of diplomatic activities has overshadowed the military gains made by the Syrian government troops, which have taken control over the strategic highway linking Damascus to Homs. But just maybe, the shift towards round-table negotiations was the projection of changing realities on the ground, and Moscow’s demonstrative signal that it still regards Assad as the legitimate national leader.
Notably, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not exclude the presence of an Iranian envoy at the next talks over Syria, saying, quote: “We want to be inclusive.”
As a follow-up to the Vienna talks, the Kingdom of Jordan, the region’s staunchly pro-West nation, has opted to start receiving updates of Russia’s military action in neighboring Syria. Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Mohammad Momani clarified that “the military coordination mechanism between Jordan and Russia concerns southern Syria and aims to ensure security of the Kingdom's northern frontiers.”
In the space of just one week several landmark events have propelled the chances of a political settlement around Syria to heights unprecedented in the last four years of the civil war. Tacitly positive statements have been voiced by top officials in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. New rounds of talks on the future of Syria involving major international actors are in the pipeline. Would we be right to suspect that something is ‘in the air,’ or is this a delusion?
Grigory Kosach, an expert on the politics of the Arab world and professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, added a large pinch of salt to these optimistic forecasts in his comments to Troika Report, pointing out that the changing realities on the ground might devalue current diplomatic gains:
“Indeed, there is something ‘in the air.’ But suppose the Syrian army manages to establish control over large areas and helps Assad to consolidate power, then all the expectations linked to elections can evaporate in no time. It would be a mistake to view Assad as Moscow’s ‘puppet.’ He has a game of his own to play…
“Larger expectations of a prompt settlement might be wishful thinking as well. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. agreed to surge supplies of military hardware to the Syrian opposition. Besides, Riyadh reiterated that there was no place for Assad in the Syria of tomorrow. You see, this is a clear indication that despite some encouraging smoke signals in the area, it is all too fragile and the process could be easily derailed.”
No less cautious in his assessment and forecast was Andrei Fyodorov, an expert on Russia’s foreign policy and a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, who made a comment to Troika Report:
“Russia has proposed to bring Iran and Egypt as participants of such meetings. It is obvious that without them, especially without Iran, no progress can be achieved. In terms of elections: parliamentary elections are theoretically possible, but we should take into consideration that there are a lot of preconditions to be met. As for the presidential elections, the West insists they must take place without Bashar al-Assad as a candidate. The latter disagrees. In any case, neither of them can be organized in the months to come.”
- Since Russia and the West cannot agree on the basic terms and conditions of such elections, does it mean that they face many new rounds of gruelling negotiations?
“Much depends on the Syrian army’s advances on the ground. If it were successful, it would strengthen Assad’s position. What’s more, Russia has proposed to assist the Syrian moderate opposition if it is ready to fight Islamic State. To my mind, this will not happen. But the diplomatic process should go hand in hand with the operations on the ground.”
Despite Fyodorov’s understandable pessimism, in response to Moscow’s offer of assistance on the ground (and in the air) one of the founding members of the Free Syrian Army, Fahad Masri said: “We need to facilitate a new meeting, so we can express our position and discuss our joint actions…. We can make a joint decision on what kind of assistance Russia might provide to the Free Syrian Army.”
This is simply additional evidence that the re-alignment and re-configuration of the alliances involved in the multi-layered conflict inside and around Syria is not something out of the question. The positive engagement of formal foes and dubious allies is already rendering previous scenarios of what was to become of Syria redundant.
What’s more, on its Syrian track Russia is showing a willingness and readiness to engage the West in sensible cooperation over a regional crisis that has acquired global overtones. In some way, for Moscow it could be a fast track out of isolation.
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