Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Playing for time

Russia’s proposal to host talks on the Syrian crisis in Moscow is going nowhere, despite its use of threats, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has chided reluctant members of the Syrian opposition who see no substance in Russia’s attempts to arrange talks on the future of the country in Moscow later this month.

Lavrov told opposition members that they are be risking their political careers unless they play along, his bullying tactics undermining any appeal the Moscow talks may have had for some members of the opposition.

Lavrov’s gruff manners, as described by opposition members, cannot veil the simple truth that the Russian initiative has no substance. Moscow is acting alone, has offered no agenda for the talks, provided no ground rules and failed to engage other world powers in the talks.

Even if an agreement were reached, there would be no guarantee that it would meet a better fate than the many agreements that have been made with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the past.

As a result, when the Russian foreign minister recently corralled Syrian opposition members to tell them that the Moscow talks would be their last chance for negotiation, few took him seriously.

Had Moscow been known for its even-handedness in Syria, things might have been different. Had the Russian leaders exerted pressure on the regime to stop the bloodshed, the opposition might have been better disposed toward Moscow’s overtures.

But over the past four years Moscow has done little more than offer unquestioning support to the Damascus regime, providing it with political backing, military support and economic assistance. Without the staunch support Moscow and Tehran have given Al-Assad’s regime, many doubt that it would still be in power today.

The only explanation for the Russian attempt to continue with the negotiations may be that Moscow wants to fish in the diplomacy barrel that the Americans, busy with Iran and Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq, have left untended.

According to opposition members, Moscow is not looking for a solution to the Syrian crisis, but instead wants to seize the chance to rehabilitate a regime that has lost all credibility.

Only a few members of the Syrian opposition have agreed to go to Moscow, and it is hard to know whether this has been done out of conviction, false hopes or sheer habit. Most opposition members, and much of the Syrian public, see no point in attending talks that seem doomed in advance.

The Moscow and Damascus media are likely to denounce the Syrian opposition for missing this “golden opportunity” for peace. But this is a risk the opposition would rather take than sacrifice its credibility by negotiating with a regime that wants to hang onto power at all costs.

Eqab Yehya, leader of the Democratic National Rally and a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), an umbrella group, said Lavrov’s offer is “ridiculous.”

“Lavrov is used to acting rudely when dealing with the Syrian opposition,” Yehya told the Weekly. “Often, he sounds more like a spokesman for the regime than a foreign minister.”

Nothing helpful will come out of the Moscow talks, the goal of which is to rehabilitate the regime, he added.

While Russia is a major world power, it is also a country with a troubled economy, heavy-handed security, a controlled media and tyrannical impulses. Its policy on Syria has so far been a predatory one, attempting to maximise its regional and global influence at the expense of a decimated nation.

Yehya said that Russia lacks the clout to arrange a solution in Syria. “It is trying to get involved in the Syrian crisis because there is an international vacuum left by the US which is busy with other problems, such as over Iran and international terrorism,” he said.

In its current overtures, Moscow is acting as if the opposition is inferior to the regime and as if the mediators can choose which individuals to include in the talks and which to exclude, he added.

Washington has remained seemingly neutral towards the Russian initiative, but clearly does not expect much to come out of it.

Khattar Abu Diyab, a professor of international relations in France, said that Washington’s prevarications on Syria are not new. The Americans, who in the past had refused to supply weapons to the under-equipped opposition, had no problem with letting the conflict run its course.

“Washington is not in a hurry, not for a showdown with the Russians, and not for getting rid of the Syrian regime,” Abu Diyab said.

Syrian opposition member Musa Al-Nabhan also believes that the Americans could force a solution in Syria if they wanted to, but are holding back. “The US holds enough cards to resolve the crisis alone. But it isn’t in a hurry to do so. It is happy to waste time and let the Russians sweat it out,” Al-Nabhan said.

Among Syrian opposition members the consensus is that the Moscow meeting is doomed in advance and that the Russians, and not just the Syrians, already know that.

For the conflict in Syria to end, they said, the regime must be confronted with greater pressure, whether militarily or diplomatic. Until this happens, the regime and its friends in Moscow will simply play for time.

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