Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Moscow steps up

The Russians are taking the lead in the Syrian mediation, but will they be able to bring the Iranians on board, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Russians have always tried to put in their two pennies’ worth in mediating the Syrian crisis, but now they seem to have taken the lead. With the Americans mostly quiet, the Arabs waiting for a sign, the Iranians overjoyed at their recent nuclear deal and UN diplomats repeatedly thwarted, it seems that Moscow is taking charge.

On 13 August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a delegation from the Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) that Moscow wished to “help all Syrians unite over the core task of preserving their country, ensuring stability and preventing it from becoming a hotbed of terrorism and other threats.”

The Russian diplomatic bid started earlier this summer when President Vladimir Putin met in June with Saudi Defence Minister Mohamed bin Salman in St Petersburg to discuss common action on Syria.

According to Lavrov, the Russian plan aims to unite all the warring factions against the Islamic State (IS) group. Moscow, in short, believes that the Syrian opposition, the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and the Kurds can all act in unison for this purpose, despite their conflicting agendas.

In August, Lavrov also conferred with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. The pace of communication between the Russians, the Americans and the Saudis suggests that a plan may soon be in the offing.

Lavrov had separate talks with both Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif a few days later.

Egypt also seems to be active in the mediation, as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has held talks with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The fact that Egypt allowed Walid Al-Muallem to appear twice in the Egyptian media, giving lengthy interviews to the television and a newspaper, has been seen as a sign that Egypt is willing to share in Russia’s inclusive diplomacy.

The Russians are said to be floating the idea of a Geneva 3 Conference with the UN and the major powers attending. First, however, they need to get everyone on board.

For now, the Russian efforts seem likely to run into two obstacles. One is the insistence of major sections of the Syrian opposition that the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad must be completely dismantled. The other is that Iran, which is more involved in the military aspect of the conflict than any other foreign power, has not yet spoken.

It is also not totally clear that the Americans, who seem to be interested in giving Russia the diplomatic lead, will automatically endorse its views, especially when it comes to the fate of the Syrian president.

US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratney may have broached some of the US concerns during his visit to Moscow on 29 August. Ratney, who has visits planned to both Riyadh and Geneva, is playing his cards close to his chest for now. But with Washington having signed a deal that gave Iran another lease on international respectability, Ratney may have the leverage needed to bring Iran aboard.

After Ratney came back from Moscow, the US State Department denied that it was giving Moscow a freehand on Syria. But the Americans now concede that a diplomatic deal is necessary to defeat IS, which they see as the main threat to the region.

None of this has been bringing joy to the opposition ranks in Syria, where many believe that the country will have no future if Al-Assad and his henchmen are allowed to go unpunished or are even integrated into a future arrangement.

Syrian opposition figure Hussein Abdou says that Moscow would be “deluding itself” if it thought that after the deaths of more than 300,000 Syrians at the hands of the regime the opposition would be willing to give it a second chance.

The Russians may be wasting their time and everybody else’s, but they might also be onto something. As the prospect of a military end to the conflict recedes, the prospects for a diplomatic deal, however flawed, may seem more palatable, if not to every member of the opposition, then at least to some.

What will be the shape of this solution, if it materialises? For now, this is a matter of speculation. But rumour has it that Washington has promised Moscow to give Al-Assad and his close associates safe exit from Syria.

Many details are not known, and many are being hammered out. This month, King Salman of Saudi Arabia is expected to visit Washington, Moscow and Cairo. If he agrees with his interlocutors on a deal, the momentum for a solution may become irreversible.

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