Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is a man who thrives on seizing the initiative. Let him spot a chance to gain a diplomatic advantage, and he will not hesitate to act. Aware that the Geneva-based talks on settling the Syrian conflict were faltering, and realizing that no other player was on the field, he jumped forward to chance his arm at brokering a Russian-led peace deal.
To lay the groundwork, Putin invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow for talks. Assad’s visit – his first publicly-declared travel outside Syria since he visited Russia in October, 2015 – was brief. He flew in on the evening of Monday, November 20, held his discussion with Putin, and flew out four hours later.
The talks were held in Putin’s Sochi residence. Although not marked on city maps, everybody knows that Residence Riviera is situated in Riviera Park, Sochi, in southern Russia, just beyond a memorial to the staff of Sochi’s hospitals. According to reports broadcast by Russian television, Putin kicked off by asserting that the time had come to move from focusing on military operations to searching for a peaceful solution for Syria’s future.
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“As far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned,” he told Assad, “the military operation is coming to an end, Now the most important thing is to move on to the political questions, and I note with satisfaction your readiness to work with all those who want peace and a solution.”
As he spoke, Syrian government forces and their allies had just taken control of Albu Kamal, the last major Syrian town held by Islamic State, and they now controlled more territory than any other force in the country. All the same the pre-war Syrian state was certainly not wholly in government hands. Rebel forces still hold a swathe of northwest Syria, next to Turkey, an enclave in the southwest, near Israel and Jordan, and other pockets close to Damascus and Homs. Up in the northeast Kurdish groups and allied US militias control a substantial area. Assad has sworn to recover the whole of pre-civil war Syria, but it is doubtful if Putin will assist him in this enterprise. Putin has his sights set on a Russian-inspired negotiated settlement, rather than a long-drawn-out war of attrition.
Immediately after his meeting with Assad, Putin announced that he had arranged to speak with international leaders, among them US President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman, and the presidents of Iran and Turkey. He pushed ahead with these discussions, adding Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the list for good measure.
On the Tuesday Putin’s telephone conversation with Trump lasted more than an hour. The White House later announced that the two had agreed on the importance of the UN-led peace process in resolving the Syrian civil war. According to the Kremlin, Putin told Trump that the Syrian leader had confirmed that he would adhere to the political process, and would agree to constitutional reform and presidential and parliamentary elections.
On Wednesday, November 22, the presidents of Turkey and Iran descended on Sochi for their own session in Residence Riviera. During the 3-way discussions, Putin said later, they agreed to support a Syrian peoples’ congress as an initial step to establishing dialogue between the warring sides. This was to take place – where else? – but in Sochi, and was viewed by the West as a rival to the Geneva-based UN-sponsored process.
Then on November 28 Russia suddenly announced that the Sochi conference had been put on hold until at least February. The reason offered was that Turkey had objected to Russia inviting groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s south-east. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is determined to give no ground to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy. It is more likely that Putin, virtually controlling the Geneva process, sees no need at present for a rival congress.
The Geneva talks, with the Turkish delegation in attendance, duly started on November 28. Prior agreement to unify the opposition delegation, following a meeting of rival groups in Saudi Arabia, gave some modest hope, although the major bone of contention, as it had been from the start, was Assad’s future. All previous attempts to end Syria’s six years of war, and they have been numerous, have foundered on bitter disagreements between the parties on whether Assad should stay in power, and if so, for how long and on what terms.
The US, the UK, France, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and much of the Sunni world, to say nothing of the Syrian democratic forces that rebelled against him, have said that Assad must be removed from power. Although the US has appeared to soften its position recently on Assad’s future, it remains a major stumbling block to viable negotiations. Putting a spanner in the works before the machine had actually started, the new head of the opposition delegation, Nasr Hariri, told a news conference in Geneva on November 27 that he was aiming for Assad’s removal.
His statement was described as “very alarming” by Russia’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Alexey Borodavkin, who urged western diplomats “to bring the opposition down to earth, as their position is not in line with the real situation”. In an effort to make it easier for the Syrian delegation to attend the Geneva talks, Russia had won an agreement from the UN envoy that Assad’s resignation at the start of a transition period would not form part of the opening UN negotiations. Nevertheless, and predictably, the Syrian team refused to sit down at the same table as the united opposition “at this stage”.
Russia’s dominance as the major political force in the Syrian situation is fully recognised by the opposition delegation. Its leader, Nasa Hariri, called on Russia, as well as other states, to pressure Assad into peace talks aimed at producing a political solution within six months, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. He went on to accuse Syria and its ally Iran of failing to abide by their agreement to de-escalate the fighting in areas such as Eastern Ghouta, a besieged rebel-held enclave. Pointing to the pause in the fighting for Eastern Ghouta for two or three days arranged by Russia, Hariri said this clearly demonstrated that Moscow was the effective power broker in the Syrian conflict.
He was not wrong – and he might have added that Russia would have the upper hand in shaping Syria’s future as well.