Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Moscow’s dubious initiative

Russian efforts to arrange talks between the Syrian regime and opposition have led to disaffection, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

For nearly a month the Russians have been trying to get interlocutors from the Syrian regime and opposition to sit down together for talks in Moscow. They have already invited a group of people supposedly representing the opposition for these talks, but including individuals believed to be close to the regime, thus compromising Moscow’s bid to act as a credible mediator.

The Russian Foreign Ministry says that its officials will not attend the meetings and that the talks will have no particular agenda. All the invitations have been handed out to individuals, not to specific parties and groups, it says. According to Russian diplomats, the regime has also vetted the names of the participants, a privilege that was not offered to the opposition.

But the way the Russians have handled their own initiative has been so offensive to the opposition and to Syrian public opinion in general that many of those who had promised to attend are now rethinking their decision. And those who will go to Moscow may face the prospect of ostracism, or worse.

As opposition members made their position clear in the Syrian media, several revolutionary groups threatened anyone who went to Moscow with future charges.

Louay Safi, a key opposition figure, was confident that the Moscow initiative would go nowhere. “Under current conditions, any negotiations sponsored by Moscow will not lead to regime change. On the contrary, the Russian leadership will try to boost the authority of [Syrian president] Bashar Al-Assad,” he told the Weekly.

“Any opposition member who acts in a manner that could strengthen the regime will be held accountable for it,” he added.

According to Safi, the absence of a powerful political body representing the opposition and enjoying national and international respect had encouraged the Russians to offer their initiative.

Syria’s main opposition groups said they could not approve of any talks that did not lead to regime change. Any future talks had to start from where the previous Geneva talks had ended, they said. The final communiqué of these talks called for the formation of an interim government with full executive powers to supervise the transition to democratic rule.

Some opposition members said that talks were inconceivable unless a ceasefire is in place and the regime ends its blockade on certain areas and releases the thousands of prisoners it is holding.

Borhan Ghalyun, a key opposition member, said that any talks held with the regime would do more harm than good.

“If the Syrian opposition agrees to talk to representatives of the regime outside a specific political or legal framework and without preconditions, this will be a death sentence for the Geneva negotiations and the decisions passed by the UN Security Council,” he said.

“The only winners in the current scenario are the Russians,” who are likely to try to promote their agenda at the expense of the Syrian opposition, he said.

Moscow is apparently using the lack of any other international initiative as an attempt to save a regime that has been unable to win in battle and is facing increasing economic difficulties.

Since the Syrian crisis started four years ago, Moscow has solidly stood behind the Al-Assad regime, supporting it in international forums as well as offering it weaponry and funds.

Syrian opposition figures note that Moscow has refrained even privately from using its leverage to make the regime act more humanely toward its own people. They say that they have tried to reassure the Russians that any future regime in the country would have good ties with Moscow, but this has not seemed to have had much effect on Russian policy.

Although it is going about it in the wrong way, Moscow clearly wants the Syrian crisis to end. One of the reasons for this is that Moscow is concerned over the growing threat represented by the Islamic State (IS) group in the Middle East, which has no love for Russia.

Two months ago, the IS released a video in Russian in which it threatened a war against Moscow. The IS may well be able to carry out this threat, as it has operated in territories that are close to the Caucasus, and some of its members are Chechen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who a few years ago decimated the Chechen rebellion against Moscow, will have much to lose if the IS follows up on its threats. This, among other things, explains why Russia is so eager to get things settled in Syria.

The Americans have thus far said nothing about the Russian initiative. But there is every reason to believe that the Americans and Europeans are not going to agree to a future solution that allows Al-Assad to stay in office.

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