Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s gamble in Syria

Moscow may be coordinating with the Americans to break the stalemate in Syria, but the Russian plans could still go either way, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Russia’s gamble in Syria
Russia’s gamble in Syria
Al-Ahram Weekly

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has taken everyone by surprise, particularly alarming the Syrian opposition which has labelled the Russian move as “aggression” and with some of its factions even pledging to go to war to repulse it.
But the Russian military intervention is only part of a bigger picture. Over the past few weeks, world and regional leaders have softened their position on the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, with many agreeing with the Russians that the Syrian president could be allowed to stay in power during a transitional phase.
The Austrian foreign minister was the first to voice such views, but soon the Spaniards, the Americans, the Germans and even the Turks were saying the same thing. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Al-Assad must leave power, but not necessarily in the early stages of a settlement.
German chancellor Angela Merkel called for including Al-Assad in preliminary talks, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he did not object to Al-Assad’s staying in power until a unity government was formed.
Aside from the disappointment felt by the opposition and the horror shared by many Syrians at the man who has led the country into the worst humanitarian crisis in its history gaining any measure of legitimacy, there may be a silver lining to such moves.
For one thing, the Russian intervention in Syria is unlikely to have taken place without tacit US approval. The Syrian crisis is too sensitive for Washington to abdicate crucial decisions to Moscow without question. And if Russia was acting alone, it would risk incurring American countermoves that could undermine Moscow’s interests on more than one front, something that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be willing to risk.
Moreover, the European change of heart over Syria, far from being a random act of disoriented diplomacy, seems to be measured and well thought out. Although European politicians had some reservations about the Russian intervention, they seemed to appreciate Moscow’s argument that Al-Assad should be involved in an interim phase.
When Europe ditches a position it has held for four years, one that calls for Al-Assad’s exclusion from the country’s future, it might be thought that it has carefully weighed its options. The Europeans must have deemed the Russian roadmap viable enough to merit their collaboration.
Turkey too, which has reluctantly endorsed the Russian plan, must have received reassurances from Moscow. And Israel, whose prime minister has had talks in Moscow, could not have agreed on Israeli-Russian military collaboration without some indication that the Russians were acting with US consent on the Syrian front.
Iran, the one country that should have been elated to see Russian troops deployed in support of Al-Assad, failed to show excitement over the intervention. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani denied any coordination with Russia, thus distancing his country from the current developments in Syria.
Top Syrian army commanders, both dissidents and loyalists, painted a picture of careful Russian plans this week to move towards a solution in the country.
Europe-based Syrian army dissidents said that Moscow had been talking for months with them, suggesting the formation of a joint military council of dissident and loyalist commanders. The regime’s militia would not take part in this council, they said.
According to the army dissidents, the joint military council would supervise about 50,000 fighters from the opposition, including forces acceptable to both the Americans and the Russians.
Before the military council is formed, several moves will have to happen, however. One is that Iran will have to call off its militia from operating in Lebanon and get Hizbullah out of the country. Another is that all the sectarian militias formed by the Syrian regime will need to be disbanded or integrated into the army.
As soon as the military council is formed, the forces under its command will take full control of all areas currently held by the regime and the secular opposition. Then areas held by non-radical, non-terrorist Islamist groups will be brought under council control. It is at this point that the confrontation with the Islamic State (IS) group will begin.
Parallel to these military efforts, politicians will begin implementing the plan proposed by the UN special envoy to Syria. This plan calls for members of the opposition and the regime to form four committees to handle security, the military situation, the political process, and reconstruction in the country.
According to its mandate, the military council will not be allowed to interfere in the political process, and it will only implement decisions made by the politicians.
Some recent developments have seemed to validate what the Europe-based army dissidents say. In Latakia, a pro-regime military officer said that Russia was preventing the entry of Syrian military personnel, regardless of rank, to the Latakia military airport. All Syrian officials, whether technical or military personnel, had to be searched first and then escorted at all times while on the premises, he said.
Russia, the source added, was also refusing to offer the regime’s army intelligence obtained by satellites. Consequently, any targets of a sensitive nature revealed by the intelligence had to be vetted by the Russians before military action could be taken against them.
According to the Latakia source, the Russians have asked the Syrian regime to give them a tally of all the irregular outfits working for it in preparation to bringing them under strict control.
In recent statements, Putin revealed that Al-Assad would be willing to hold early parliamentary elections and share power with a “constructive” opposition, all of which are matters to which the regime had previously objected.
According to Putin, the regime is also willing to engage in political reform while fighting “terror,” which is a new position as in the past the regime had insisted on stamping out all the “terrorists” in advance, wording that covered everyone demanding Al-Assad’s overthrow.
The Russian plan may work, but only if it has full international backing, gains approval from the opposition, and is enforced by the major powers.
For all the positive reports coming from the army dissidents and loyalists, it is hard to know whether the Russians are earnest enough in their efforts and whether they can keep the Americans on board, the Iranians at bay, and obtain the opposition’s cooperation.
If the Iranians call off Hizbullah, this would be a good sign. If the regime’s militia are disbanded, that would be another. If all sides agree to the UN plan and field the names of their representatives to the four committees, then the ball will have truly started rolling.

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