The announcement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday that Moscow could host peace talks on Syria sometime toward the last week of January did not exactly come as surprise. Much diplomatic effort had gone into it. The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was in Moscow and Russia’s special presidential representative on the Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov had been swinging his way through the region in recent weeks and also touching base with the protagonists in Syria – government and opposition alike.
Most important, despite the tensions in Russian-American relations, the two big powers have been consulting on Syria on the basis of shared concerns (as much as differences). Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dropped a broad hint of stirrings in the air when in an interview with TV Channel France 24 some ten days ago he all but forecast that Moscow might host a Syrian “warming-up” as prelude to a Geneva III under the formal UN umbrella.
Lavrov said it could be “a preparatory meeting just to bring the opposition groups together for them to try to develop a common approach to the negotiations with the government, then to bring the government representatives to meet with them informally, and to agree the agenda of the process, which could be resumed. Because one of the reasons the Geneva, the previous Geneva process, failed was they could not agree on the agenda, which comes first – fighting terrorism or discussing political transition. I believe this could be done in parallel.”
Lavrov also disclosed that Moscow is moving in tandem with the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who also “has some ideas on this score, which we [Russia] support.” Lavrov explained that Russia hoped to persuade the Syrian opposition groups to come together and to form a common delegation, “probably with more than one spokesman but in a delegation, which would be based on the same principles.”
Interestingly, Lavrov disclosed that on a parallel track, “we have to support another UN idea, which is the so-called freezing of the hostilities, starting from Aleppo. Staffan de Mistura has some specific plan, and we would be supportive of his efforts.” In sum, Lavrov insisted that there is room for optimism about the whole idea since the “majority of our interlocutors” have responded favorably to it.
The diplomatic track is indeed showing new activism. Damascus has voiced over the weekend that its decision to participate in the peace talks in Moscow. The Syrian rebels initially sounded a discordant note but that also seems to be changing.
Lebanon’s Daily Star today reported from Cairo that a conclave of the Syrian opposition groups meeting in the Egyptian capital currently is on the ball and has even begun working on a peace plan. The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri has been quoted as saying that the Syrian opposition has indicated its agreement in principle to attend the Moscow meetings.
Indeed, the chances of the peace doves taking off in Syrian skies are almost evenly divided. On the plus side, the success of the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad in gaining control over most of the urban areas along the west coast and the virtual extinction of the ‘moderate’ opposition groups has created a “chaotic stalemate”, as New York Times put it in an insightful report last week. The spectre that is haunting the proponents of regime change in the West is a long insurgency and a Syria that would be mostly controlled either by the government forces or the extremist Islamist groups.
Unsurprisingly, the EU is backing de Mistura’s mission and implicitly signaling go-ahead for Moscow’s initiative. Alongside, there is a grudging acknowledgement in the western capitals – albeit in hushed tone so far – that Assad stands between Europe and the Islamist deluge. The fact remains that the Barack Obama administration has also withstood immense pressure from lobbies in the US to intervene in Syria. It remains to be seen how far the Obama administration will remain committed to building a new ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel force from scratch.
However, there are negative factors that cannot be underestimated, either. First and foremost, the Islamic State, which controls a lot of Syrian territory, is not going to be present at the meeting in Moscow. Put differently, one of the main ‘protagonists’ in the conflict in Syria stands excluded and any peace plan on Syria’s democratic transformation suffers without a strategy to fight the IS and eradicate it from the political landscape. This alone becomes a formidable challenge, since the IS is not confined to Syria alone.
Second, the regional states wedded to the regime change agenda in Syria – Turkey, Saudi Arabia principally – are not showing any signs of having given up their pipedream. Foreign fighters are still arriving in Syria through Turkish territory and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has made Washington’s support for the ouster of Assad as his pre-condition for lending a hand in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan is in a defiant mood as the participation of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in the ruling party AKP’s annual congress last week shows.
As for Saudi Arabia, it sees Syria through the prism of its animosity toward Iran. The Saudi strategy to hurt Iranian economy by engineering the drop in oil price has only exacerbated the regional rivalry between Riyadh and Teheran. The Iran Daily newspaper linked to the office of the Supreme Leader carried a tough editorial on Sunday, capturing the big tensions with Saudi Arabia. The editorial, inter alia, underscored that the forthcoming peace talks in Moscow will be “a significant setback” for the Saudi plans to topple Assad, coming on top of the “victory” Tehran scored in the Syrian conflict.
On the other hand, the US’ capacity to influence Turkey and Saudi Arabia cannot be exaggerated — and, indeed, the political will itself may be lacking. An excellent piece in the National Interest, here, points out that Washington would know that its “toxic Middle East allies” engage in behavior that contradicts US interests, including by supporting terrorism, but “Outdated and misguided ideas about the importance of our Persian Gulf allies, driven by an imprudent and expansive grand strategy, continue to incentivize [US] policymakers to overlook the substantial costs associated with them.”
Suffice it to say, the ‘known unknown’ at this point is how far the Russian initiative to kickstart peace talks on Syria would form a calming vector in the overall US-Russia ties. Of course, Moscow will be only too keen to work with the US on any common problem impacting regional and international security that would hold the potential to improve Russia’s standing with the West.
In Europe, Russia’s peacemaking role on Syria can only burnish its image. The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (former Italian foreign minister and an erstwhile youth leader of the Italian communist party) might have held out an olive branch yesterday to the Kremlin, saying the West wants to end the “logic of confrontation” in relations with Russia, and wants to “begin direct discussions with Moscow over our mutual relations and the role Russia can play in other crises.” Mogherini actually listed Syria as one such hotspot. (Sputnik)
The big question is what Obama has to say when he returns to Washington from the golf course in Hawaii. The chronicle of Russian-American relations is replete with such tantalizing moments. although four days have passed, the US is yet to react negatively to the announcement in Moscow last Thursday on the Syria peace talks and that must be taken as a good sign.