By: Patrick Hoover, Columnist
Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor
Russia is increasingly in the diplomatic driver’s seat of the seven-year Syria conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Hassan Rouhani and Tayyip Erdogan, in Sochi between November 20 and 25 to issue a joint statement affirming their commitment to a “post-conflict” phase in Syria via the implementation of various de-escalation zones in contested parts of the country.
However, the initiative is unlikely to translate into meaningful change for several reasons. First, Putin appears to be using diplomatic initiatives separate from the United Nations-sponsored Geneva process to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. While Putin may seek to drop this condition into the Geneva framework to gain international legitimacy, the Syrian opposition has signaled its long-standing rejection that Assad remain in power before any political transition.[i] Secondly, the Syrian opposition itself does not represent all armed factions in Syria, suggesting that the conflict may continue in the event some sort of deal is reached. One such faction is the Syrian Kurds, an integral US ally in the fight against ISIS who have been excluded from all international talks. Though keeping Assad in power may prolong conflict in Syria, Putin’s ongoing diplomatic engagements with regional elements only serves to consolidate Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East at the expense of the United States.
Keeping Assad in Power
A key part of the Russian push into Syria and the broader region has involved vetoing UN Resolution 2254—the condition that paves the way for a political transition in Syria—and creating a separate series of diplomatic talks with regional players.[ii] Since its intervention into Syria in September 2015, Russia has essentially saved the Assad regime. Russian airstrikes and Russian-trained elite Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units helped the Syrian regime crush the opposition in Aleppo in late December 2016, and continue to oversee SAA successes against ISIS in Deir al-Zour province.
During talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, Putin managed to convince Erdogan to cease his calls for Assad’s removal in exchange for allowing Turkish action against the Syrian Kurds in August 2016. Though protecting Assad guarantees Russian influence in the eastern Mediterranean, Putin may not want the Syrian conflict to continue forever, as his broader long-term interest likely centers on restoring Russian prestige on the international stage.
Putin has stated that these talks in Astana, as well as others that took place in Sochi, Russia, are not meant to undermine the Geneva process. This suggests that these diplomatic initiatives may be used to supplant conditions favorable to Russian interests into Geneva to gain worldwide recognition of Russia as a credible power broker. The United States and several other Western powers have indicated a willingness to withhold immediate calls for Assad’s removal, no doubt a result of Russian diplomatic maneuvering throughout the region. Nonetheless, Putin’s current intransigence to keep Assad in power undermines any prospect of peace in Syria due to the Syrian opposition’s long-standing demand of Assad’s removal prior to any political transition.
The Dearth of a United Syrian Opposition
At least 50 delegates representing various opposition factions met in Riyadh on November 24 to formulate a united front, a revamped version of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in anticipation of the latest Geneva round scheduled for December 5. The delegates agreed to negotiate with Assad directly to prepare a transitional political authority as a path for free and fair elections on the condition that Assad leaves office at the start of the transition period.[iii]
Assad delegates reportedly postponed their attendance to Geneva next week over the opposition’s enduring demand that Assad leave office.[iv] This condition notwithstanding, the HNC lacks both the unity and legitimacy to bring credible peace to Syria. The HNC does not include representatives from all rebel factions within Syria, the most powerful of which is the al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which suffers from its own internal power struggles between pragmatist and jihadist camps.
HTS may continue to subvert the HNC and corral other rebels into fighting Assad in a post-Geneva scenario. Moreover, former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab and several other HNC officials resigned from the HNC in protest of allegations that Saudi Arabia was pressuring the opposition factions to make concessions in favor of Assad.[v] Hijab’s exit has created speculation that the HNC may soften its commitment to removing Assad—a line that has mutually-reinforced Western hints toward accepting Assad in the transition period.
What About the Kurds?
A third contentious point is the state of the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds host at least ten US military sites as part of the fight against ISIS, and control vast swathes of northern and eastern Syria. Despite their international support and territorial control, the Kurds have been excluded from all discussions centered around Syria’s future. Assad fears that affording the Kurds a seat at the negotiating table may legitimize Kurdish territorial integrity, which extends across most of northern and eastern Syria. Secondly, Turkey—both a NATO ally and implementer of the Russian de-escalation zone in Idlib province—will likely walk from the table over its concerns of a consolidated Kurdish entity within and around its borders. Assad has expressed his desire to retake the Kurdish-held north, while Erdogan repeatedly threatens an all-out war. Preventing such a scenario has required both Russian and American protection of the Kurds; however, the United States has offered mixed signals regarding its support for the Syrian Kurds once the battle against ISIS commences, further complicating prospects of a peaceful transition period.
A New Geopolitical Reality
Regardless of whether Russia can help secure a lasting peace in Syria, its diplomatic initiatives from Sochi to Astana have brought Putin back into the international fold. As the Sochi talks commenced, Putin made calls to US President Donald Trump, as well as his Israeli, Saudi, and Egyptian counterparts. These developments signaled to the international community that Russia is now leading on the Syria issue and must write off on any initiatives involving the conflict’s future. Perhaps more concerning to the United States and its allies, the Syrian conflict has allowed Russia to build a significant military presence in the region that can afford Putin both the diplomatic and political leverage to shape regional conditions to the benefit of itself and regional allies.
[i] “Syrian government delegation postpones departure to Geneva talks: report,” Reuters, November 27, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-geneva/syrian-government-delegation-postpones-departure-to-geneva-talks-report-idUSKBN1DR0W5.
[ii] “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2254 (2015), Endorsing Road Map for Peace Process in Syria, Setting Timetable for Talks,” United Nations Press, December 18, 2015, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12171.doc.htm.
[iv] “Syrian government delegation postpones departure to Geneva talks: report,” Reuters, November 27, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-geneva/syrian-government-delegation-postpones-departure-to-geneva-talks-report-idUSKBN1DR0W5.
[v] Barbara Bibbo, “New round of Syria talks opens in Geneva,” Al-Jazeera, November 28, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/expect-syria-talks-171127093905806.html.