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Hosting Syria talks in Sochi presents challenges for Russia

Moscow will have to juggle the competing interests of its coalition partners at the forthcoming meeting

(Al-Monitor) – As Moscow prepares for its Syrian National Dialogue Congress this month, the guest list might still be in flux. Russia hopes to broker peace between the Syrian regime and its opposition while appeasing major stakeholders — who at the moment aren’t playing nicely.

On Jan. 11, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian situation. This was two days after Turkey had summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors over cease-fire violations in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Under the preliminary peace agreements reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, the three guarantor countries for the four Syrian de-escalation zones are Turkey, Russia and Iran.

Ankara couldn’t be more displeased with the recent offensive in Idlib by Syrian government forces with the support of pro-Iranian militias and Russian air power. Al-Monitor correspondent Amberin Zaman reported Jan. 10 that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized Moscow and Tehran for failing to stop the offensive.

But Moscow had its own grievances with Ankara, whose peace-monitoring forces entered Idlib in October and chose to “coexist rather than curb” the actions of al-Qaeda-linked group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The mutual suspicions were topped off with speculation that Turkey might have played a role in the recent attacks on Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, threatening to upset the fragile balance among the Astana guarantors. Therefore, the phone call between Putin and Erdogan was an attempt to douse the flaring fire. Following the conversation, Putin dismissed the speculation, saying Jan. 11 he was positive that “neither the Turkish military nor the Turkish government had anything to do with the attacks.”

“Indeed, [the attacks on Khmeimim] came from the area that is supposed to be under Turkey’s control, but honestly we’ve also not always been able to control what we have to control over there. It’s complicated. According to our agreements, our Turkish partners were supposed to set up some checkpoints there, which they haven’t yet, but it’s difficult to do,” he said.

Putin referred to the Khmeimim attacks as “provocations.”

“We know who the provocateurs were. We know whom they paid and how much. But these were not Turks. … The attacks had two goals: one, to derail previous agreements, [and] two, to destroy our relations with our partners, Turkey and Iran. We understand this very well and will act in solidarity.”

The next day, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a precision-guided strike on what it called “the subversion group” allegedly behind the Hmeimim attacks. Therefore, even if there were objective or subjective grounds to suspect a “Turkish hand” in the incidents, the Kremlin made it clear it wasn’t going to let the rumors determine its attitude regarding Turkey and made a political decision to patch up its relations with Ankara at an early stage.

Against this background, Moscow’s relations with another Astana partner, Iran, look more stable. On the ground, Russian military and various pro-Iranian forces fight side by side with the Syrian government against opposition militants while keeping their contradictions to themselves. Russia also scored points with Iran’s leadership by taking the stance that Iran should be able to deal with its own matters regarding the recent protests there, and by taking advantage of the President Donald Trump-gifted opportunity to publicly demonstrate, yet again, its unity with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Nevertheless, Russia’s disagreements with Turkey over the Syrian government offensive in Idlib couldn’t have been fixed with a phone call. Neither can Moscow’s JCPOA stance smooth over its “tacit rivalry” with Iran for influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria. The Russia/Iran/Turkey trio’s lack of trust is barely news, and incidents such as the Khmeimim attack or the ongoing fight in Idlib are fueling suspicions and not-so-deeply buried grievances. Therefore, it’s of principal importance to Moscow at this point to ensure that the working coalition of the “Astana troika” continues to function at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, set for Jan. 29-30 in Sochi, and that the trio stays more or less united on major issues and is able to produce fateful decisions around which the subsequent political process is going to evolve.

Politically, Moscow continues to play good cop to Tehran’s bad cop with the opposition at negotiation venues, including Geneva. Some rebel factions have come to think of Moscow as the lesser of two evils, while others see little difference between the two and seek to closely engage with Turkey. While Moscow is aware of these contacts, it hopes Turkey will stay the course, comply with its Astana obligations and not impede Russia’s pet project of the Sochi Congress.

Turkey and Iran have their own reservations about Russia’s true motives behind the Sochi initiative. Moscow is aware of this and finds it necessary to discuss — but not necessarily address — these concerns. Therefore, Putin and Erdogan thoroughly discussed preparations by phone, as did Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, during the latter’s visit to Moscow. Both Turkey and Iran are reviewing a list of Russia’s 1,700 proposed congress participants. On Jan. 11, Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev was sent to Damascus to meet with Assad to settle the “most difficult and complex issues so that the parties could move forward.”

The original idea for the Sochi Congress was not to make it a separate process, but rather for it to serve as a booster rocket for the Geneva payload. The Geneva talks have been grounded by the uncompromising positions of the Syrian government and the opposition. As more Syrian opposition factions began opting not to participate in the meeting, Moscow saw its task as host to assemble “the right group” of Syrian representatives to legitimize their further role in the country’s future. Politically, the Kremlin hopes the congress will further establish Russia as the chief firefighter of the Syrian conflict.

Even if the congress seems detached from Geneva at the initial stage, the Sochi conference can continue to exist separately without harming the Geneva talks, simply because it doesn’t have the UN-mandated international legitimacy. Moscow, therefore, discards opposition claims that the congress threatens the Geneva process. Moscow views those claims as merely a political effort to get Europeans and Americans to counter Russian initiatives and thus save the opposition’s cause of getting rid of Assad.

Moreover, Moscow doesn’t see the Geneva effort as a failure because, first, it’s an ongoing process, and second, because the initial expectations for what it could produce were moderate if not low.

On the other hand, as the Astana talks have shown, if the UN venue — the Geneva process in this case — doesn’t produce results, Moscow will not hesitate to create its own platform, invite those willing to join it, work something out there and then make the rest of the stakeholders, including the United Nations, deal with it. That would provide the process and the subsequent results with the needed legitimacy.

In this case, getting Turkey and Iran on Russia’s side will require more hard work than countering resistance from the opposition.

A Russian diplomat with knowledge of the process told Al-Monitor, “Over the course of the civil war in Syria, some opposition groups morphed … disbanded or merged with radical terrorists. Some of those who spearheaded the anti-Assad movement are no longer around. Today, former opposition leaders are telling us that those who are now claiming to be “the opposition” barely represent 10% of the Syrians, and what once may have been a genuine Syrian anti-Assad movement has now been hijacked by outside forces. So what’s the opposition mandate, and are they truly able to implement the decisions they want to discuss?”

If this view reflects Russian thinking at the top level, it signals that Moscow is inclined to do everything in its power to see the Syrian political transition start in 2018. But engaging Turkey and Iran may be quite a challenge given the political and on-the-ground conditions.

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