There is little doubt that the super-power in the Syrian situation is Russia, and that – despite recent US efforts to bolster the UN’s Geneva peace-seeking initiative – the final settlement, whenever it comes about, will provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with the major political advantages in the region that he is seeking.
Putin is heavily engaged in constructing a peace process aimed at bringing Syria’s seven-year civil conflict to an end. He kicked off his carefully constructed diplomatic initiative in November 2017, and it may culminate some time in February in a round-table congress in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Despite his many assurances that his efforts are meant to boost the official and long-running UN peace negotiations in Geneva, hosted by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, popular perception is that he is building a political process outside of the UN exercise.
In fact the last round of UN peace talks, held in Geneva early in December, went badly. Their collapse was caused by the issue that has bedevilled all efforts at reaching an accommodation – the future of President Bashar al-Assad. Since the rebel forces’ representatives refused to budge on their insistence that Assad should have no future in a post-conflict Syria, the Syrian government delegation refused to meet directly with any of them. De Mistura’s next move starkly illustrates where the real political power in the region lies. Shortly after the Geneva talks ended, de Mistura flew to Moscow to confer with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
As Putin’s peace brokering plans mature, these are some of the outstanding issues. Will he re-establish Syria exactly within its old borders (the US seems to be favoring allowing the Kurds to maintain their semi-autonomous region)? Will he preserve Assad in his presidency? Will he consolidate Iran’s dominance of the political and military establishments in the country? Will he therefore facilitate Iran’s ambitions to establish its so-called “Shia crescent”, an essential factor in its plans for regional dominance, starting in Yemen, running through Bahrain up to Iran and then through Syria to Lebanon?
Putin’s peace initiative started on November 20, when he summoned Assad to Russia for talks. Assad’s visit was brief. He flew in on the Monday evening, held his discussion with Putin, and flew out four hours later.
“The military operation is coming to an end,” Putin told him. “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.”
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With the help of Russian airpower and Iranian-backed foot soldiers Assad has been regaining increasing amounts of territory, and now controls more than 70% of the country. The latest success has been the retaking of the Syrian Golan heights from rebels in late December.
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 arrived for their own session with Putin. 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. It is on the basis of this congress, announced to take place some time in February 2018, that Putin may be pinning his hopes of ending the conflict and setting Syria on a new political and constitutional path.
Reliable reports indicate that, behind the scenes, Moscow has been negotiating with the main armed factions across Syria. Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Fallaq al-Rahman rebels, explains: “It’s better to negotiate with the ones calling the shots, which is Russia, than with the regime.”
“We communicate exclusively with them,” said Hamza Birqdar of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, “because in reality, when it comes to Assad and his government, they have become toys in the hands of the Russians. They make no decisions… except under Russian orders.”
Moscow appears to have built these ties to local groups in order to have them included in the truce process, perhaps in the hope of ensuring a widespread agreement that will stick. If this is so, it indicates that Russia is far from wedded to the idea of consolidating Assad’s presidency permanently. In fact, since committing his forces to supporting Assad’s struggle against the Free Syrian Army and the other rebel groups, Putin has been noticeably equivocal about Assad’s future. Rather than handing the presidency back to Assad together with a nation restored to its historic borders, Putin has hinted at the possibility of a presidential election in which Assad might stand as one candidate among several. There would be a sort of precedent to fall back on. In late April 2014, Assad himself announced that he would run in Syria’s first multi-candidate direct presidential election. In the event it was boycotted by opposition parties, but the concept is not revolutionary.
Most western nations have asserted that Assad’s early departure was an essential element in any plan for the future of Syria, but reports from the US indicate that the Trump administration is prepared to accept Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled presidential election. Given this, Putin may simply decide to strong-arm both Assad and the rebel representatives into agreeing to a presidential election, perhaps in 2021, the formal date for the next poll, as part of a new constitutional order. He would probably be content to allow Assad to continue ruling until the new arrangements could be put in place.
The fact of the matter is that Assad continues to command the support of a large section of Syrian society. Nothing succeeds like success, and despite the police state he ran until 2011, people respond to a strong leader. If Assad were to stand in a fully free, fair and internationally supervised presidential poll, the outcome is far from certain.