TROIKA REPORT: Russia’s all-inclusive diplomacy over Syria

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad at a meeting at the Kremlin, Oct. 20, 2015.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad at a meeting at the Kremlin, Oct. 20, 2015.

Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti
RIR presents its weekly analytical program TROIKA REPORT, featuring a look at three of the most high-profile recent developments in international affairs.

1. Russia’s all-inclusive diplomacy over Syria

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.

2. Why Moscow is in no hurry to mediate Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The ongoing unrest and tit-for-tat killings in Israel, pitting the Jewish authorities and the Palestinians against each other, has catapulted the conflict, which dates back to the end of WWII, to the top of the global agenda. It has also exposed the failure of international mediators.

The visit of U.S. State Secretary John Kerry, who quickly shuttled across the region, has not diminished the tensions. Kerry’s lightning visit was marked by a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, as well as a plan to install security cameras at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. It did not go well with the Palestinians, who asked the question: Who is to monitor the monitors?

France has also thrown its hat into the ring: Paris has suggested involving 19 more countries in the peace talks, including Saudi Arabia, Norway, Ireland, China and the Arab League. It also called for international monitors to be placed in Jerusalem. On this occasion it was Israel that raised hell and objections.

The mixed reaction to the mediation plans proposed by the U.S. and France has sparked speculation that given Russia’s newly assertive profile in regional affairs it might step in and possibly offer an alternative pattern of a settlement. After all, long before the Oslo agreement in 1993, Russia was the co-sponsor – along with the U.S. – of the Madrid conference in 1990, now largely forgotten but which provided guidance for further talks on the decades-long misunderstanding between the Israelis and Palestinians, and still remains a valid legal foundation.

Is international mediation, including a higher profile for Moscow, a viable roadmap for a final settlement? Troika Report approached DanielaGrudsky-Eckstein, a senior diplomat with the political section of the Embassy of Israel in Moscow for comment:

“We have witnessed in the past three weeks a strong wave of violence, with Palestinian incitement bringing people into the street with weapons. It does not give much hope. It is a dreadful situation. We need a peace process. There are different diplomatic initiatives and we welcome these initiatives. We say to our counterparts, to the United States, to France and others, what we need now is direct talks with the Palestinians. The line between Jerusalem and Ramallah should not pass through New York or other international location. We should have one-on-one negotiations where we can resolve all the open problems, and finally find a way to calm down the situation.”

— Does the Israeli government have a blueprint for putting an end to the violence?

“I shall explain the Israeli policy: There is no change to the status of Temple Mount. Israel recognizes the importance of Temple Mount. We reaffirm our commitment to oppose any change of the status of Temple Mount. There is an offer that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made during these days — one-on-one direct negotiations using the help of counterparts; in this case it was Secretary of State Kerry but we welcome any other counterpart who is willing to help the negotiation process happen.”

— Can Moscow position itself as an honest broker within the ad hoc quartet formed to discuss a settlement in Syria (comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) and breathe new life into the efforts to find a solution?

“Russia is one of Israel’s friends in the region. We welcome all the initiatives. In this case, the quartet is playing a positive role.”

“We think that Russia has an important role in this quartet.”

Yet Moscow seems to be keeping a low profile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What is the reason for this? Grigory Kosach, an expert on the politics of the Arab world and professor at The Russian State University for the Humanities, made this statement to Troika Report:

“Russia could have played a more prolific role on conflict resolution since it has channels of communications open with Israel and also with various groups within Palestinian society, from Mahmoud Abbas to HAMAS. However, Russia considers both sides responsible for the tensions, and places them on an equal footing.

“This is unreasonable. Should Moscow say that it is incorrect for Israel to be soft on its right-wing activists who insist that the West Bank jurisdiction is non-negotiable since it is the location of Judeo and Samaria, ancient Jewish kingdoms? Definitely. Should Moscow warn Palestinians that it is inadmissible to use terror as a method to achieve their goals? It should. But Moscow is too weak to get involved in such a pro-active manner in this entrenched conflict.”

Another reason for Moscow distancing itself from the present resurgence of violence, with the specter of a third intifada on the horizon, was spelled out for Troika Report by Sergei Filatov, a commentator with the Moscow-based journal International Affairs. In his view, Moscow is in no position to commit itself to mediation on the Israeli-Palestinian issue since it is fully consumed with efforts to settle the conflict in and around Syria. Not until the Syrian settlement is signed, sealed and closed can Moscow redirect its attention to other regional rifts and schisms.

However, the opportunity for Russia to play a stronger role in attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate may present itself in due course. It is a hardly a secret that the Obama administration is performing a awkward balancing act: concealing its aversion to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who happens to be on friendly terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin) and at the same time averting any suspicion that the U.S. is dumping Israel as its longest serving strategic partner in the region.

Yet Israeli officials and experts warned a long time ago that the U.S. will eventually distance itself from the Holy Land, and the nuclear deal with Iran is seen as a solid proof that this is now occurring.

Under the changing regional balance of power and allegiances, Russia has the credentials to get involved in mediation on the Israeli-Palestinian track. But probably not until the Syrian dossier is closed. And it still has to be written.

3. London’s ping pong diplomacy: red carpet for China, red card for Russia

The red carpet rolled out by the British government for Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose three-day visit this week was marked by a lavish state banquet in his honor hosted by the Queen and a two-night stay at Buckingham Palace, contrasted with the almost complete estrangement between London and Moscow.

Trade talks between the Chinese and the British culminated in several landmark deals, in particular, the agreement with the China General Nuclear Power Corporation for a nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, Somerset, worth some 6 billion pounds ($9.2 billion). The City of London, the world’s leading financial hub with the biggest foreign exchange market, was especially keen in engaging with the Chinese because it has emerged as the largest renminbi trading center outside of Asia. With around a third of British GDP generated in the finance sector, China has the status of a super VIP-client.

British-Russian relations, however, are in stark contrast to London’s flirtation with China, and are currently at their lowest ebb since the height of the Cold War. Russian ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko passed a stern verdict on bilateral relations between London and Moscow in an interview with The Times. Here are a few excerpts: “Practically all political contacts were abruptly broken off at Britain’s initiative;” “At the ministerial level there is also stagnation;” “Forums for the discussion of trade and economic co-operation where we discussed mutual interests are frozen, science ties are effectively cut off, the only sphere we have left today is culture,” and so on.

Western officials and experts often compare Russia and China to Asia-style autocracies. So why has Her Majesty’s government now abruptly abandoned any mention of human rights violations in China, which were vociferously played up during the protests in Hong Kong last year? Why is there a deliberate distinction between China and Russia?

Alexander Lomanov, chief research fellow at the Moscow-based Institute of Far Eastern Studies, provided this comment for Troika Report:

“Something similar happened back in the 1970s when superficially both the Soviet Union and China were treated as Communist regimes posing a threat to Western democracies. Then suddenly the American leadership deiced to form a joint front against the Soviet Union. It was decided that Chinese autocracy was much friendlier than the Soviet autocracy. The same trend can be traced today when the West is scared by the perspective of a growing and strengthening Sino-Russian alliance. The desire is to bring China into the Western fold and turn it into a counter-balance to Russia.”

“On the other hand, this comparison is superficial. In the 1970s China was destitute and poor; now it is one of the biggest and richest economies in the world.”

“So, we have Russia with less than $2 trillion of annual GDP, and we have China with its GDP approaching $10 trillion. China is already an important lynchpin of international trade and global economy. It may sound cynical, but it looks like that if your GDP is less than $2 trillion you can be shunned and neglected, but if your GDP is close to $10 trillion there is no way you can be subject to isolation.”

— Do you mean to say that the high-profile flirting with President Xi in the UK was not only about landing lucrative contracts but also about trying to disengage China from Russia?

“Both motives are there. What’s more, I don’t believe in the 100 percent independence of the British foreign policy, because it is too much dependent on the United States.”

“It is evident that the West is unhappy with China’s economic and political independence. China did not support Western sanctions against Russia. There is and there will be a growing temptation to promise China better financial terms and conditions, to promise cooperation, more trade and investment, in exchange for changes in China-Russia relations. Maybe the West would be eager to play the same game from the 1970s. Who knows?”

— If this is the case of a smart conspiracy, as you imply, does it really pose a threat to the privileged relations enjoyed by Russia vis-a-vis China?

“There is absolutely no immediate threat. However, it is remarkable that right now in China a debate is going on the benefits of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was originally rejected. Voices are being heard saying that the TPP is not very different from the World Trade Organization (WTO). China used to be reluctant to join the WTO, but now it is a strong actor within this organization. Now some are saying that China should join the TPP. It will not happen in a year or two, but if it happens, in a decade or so, it will make Russia too weak to play in the same league.”

Yet it is not entirely clear what London’s motives are. It could be just mere coincidence that UK and Europe on the whole have started courting Beijing in a more assertive manner since the gradual rapprochement between Russia and China.

The process has accelerated since the interaction between Moscow and Beijing acquired new dimensions by addressing the issues of reshaping global finances, linking economic expansion roadmaps in Eurasia, and the sharing of military intelligence and plans for joint production in hi-tech areas.

If this line of logic is observed, then the UK’s soft handling of China is largely limited to the goal of obtaining financial and commercial preferences, and capitalizing on the slightly diminished yet still strong growth of the world’s second-largest economy.

Nevertheless, it is hardly conceivable that economy is completely detached from geopolitics. This makes it all too likely that when Cameron’s government “goes eastward,” it is following the same pattern of behavior as the U.S. did back in the times of “ping pong diplomacy” aimed at pitting China against Russia. But maybe this is just another oversimplified conspiracy theory?

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