Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A chance for diplomacy

The recent meeting between Bashar Al-Assad and Vladimir Putin in Moscow seems to have set in motion new diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. One can only hope they succeed, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Kremlin, in less than a month, has surprised the world by its well-planned moves in Syria. On Tuesday, 20 October, President Bashar-Al Assad paid a visit to the Kremlin, where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian-Syrian summit in Moscow could be a rare chance for diplomacy to lead the Syrians towards a political solution to their bloody civil war. The war, now in its fifth year, threatens the disappearance of what we have called the Arab Republic of Syria.

The Moscow summit took place in the midst of sustained Russian air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups operating on Syrian soil to bring down the Syrian government. Of course, these air strikes have not been welcomed by every power, be it foreign, regional or Arab, that has joined forces to overthrow the Syrian president.

The Syrian president, according to Kremlin sources, thanked President Putin for his military support for the Syrian army and its offensive to recapture territories within Syria that were lost previously to IS and others. He stressed that without this assistance, “terrorism” would have extended to other countries.

Al-Assad made it clear that he will continue fighting terrorism with Russian help and support, and that both Syria and Russia will cooperate, at a later stage, in the reconstruction of Syria, both politically as well as economically, and push for the establishment of what he called a “peaceful coexistence” within Syria.

He emphasised that the only objective that must be respected by everyone is what the Syrian people really want in terms of the future.

President Putin reiterated Russia’s support for Syria in its fight against terrorism and reaffirmed Moscow’s position on the importance of reaching a political solution to the conflict in the country. He underlined that, taking the long term into consideration, the solution to the Syrian crisis will only be achieved through a political dialogue among Syrians themselves, including the government in Damascus. In the meantime, he emphasised that that the final outcome of this path will be formulated by the Syrians themselves.

To give a rationale for Russian air strikes against terrorist groups within Syria, President Putin noted that at least 4,000 fighters, many of whom come from the former Soviet republics, are fighting with these groups. He added that Russia will never allow them to return to their home towns. In other words, Syria’s war is also Russia’s.

In the same context, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu said, “Russia can never allow terrorism to grow in Russian territories and those of Russia’s allies.” He added that Moscow will continue providing support to the legitimate authorities in Syria to fight IS and to create the conditions necessary to settle the Syrian crisis politically.

The visit of Al-Assad to Moscow led to a meeting in Vienna on Friday, 24 October, that brought together the Russian, American, Saudi and Turkish foreign minsters to try to build on the results of the Russian-Syrian summit in Moscow. Of particular concern is the future role of President Al-Assad in the transitional period, as outlined in the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012.

Maybe it is useful to repeat that nothing in this communiqué says that the Syrian president must leave power. That’s what we diplomatically call constructive ambiguity. And this, in my opinion, is what international, regional and Arab stakeholders in the Syrian crisis want to build upon, each trying to impose their interpretation of the ambiguous wording.

According to John Kerry, the US secretary of state, another ministerial meeting — this one to be enlarged to include other powers, perhaps Egypt and Iran — could take place Friday, 30 October. This meeting would discuss the Syrian transition and the future of the Syrian president in it. Secretary Kerry flew to the Middle East after the Vienna meeting and conferred with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, as well as King Abdallah of Jordan.

Secretary Kerry said, in a press conference after the four-power meeting last Friday in Vienna, that the four participating countries reaffirmed the basic principles of a political transition in Syria as expressed in the Geneva Communiqué.

He stressed that there could be no military solution in Syria. Interestingly, he also said that a political transition would “contribute to the defeat of [Islamic State].” The most relevant statement on the future of the Syrian president was given when Kerry, in Vienna, said, “While we can agree to disagree on what might occur and when with respect to the resolution of the Assad problem, we clearly can agree on a process that would help bring about a resolution of that question.”

The magic words in his brief statement are “a process.” The proposed enlarged ministerial meeting will likely work on defining this “process”, how long it will take, and its finality. And one cannot possibly agree on such an important matter without the presence of Egypt, Iran and Jordan.

In sum, the Moscow summit has energised diplomatic efforts aimed at implementing the Geneva Communiqué in order to save Syria and to degrade and defeat not only IS, but also all other terrorist groups, such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

After the Vienna ministerial meeting, the US secretary of state said that any transition in Syria must produce “an inclusive, accountable government overseeing a unified, secular, pluralistic, sovereign and independent nation that contributes to the stability of the region.”

One could not agree more. However, the question remains as to whether the present policies of the United States and its allies and partners, especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will lead to such an outcome.

I personally doubt it. Their policies in Syria in the last four and a half years have taken us to where we are today — and not only in Syria, but also in Iraq and Libya. Let us hope the enlarged ministerial meeting, when it convenes, will adopt a consensual and a constructive approach away from the role and the future of the Syrian president, whose future must be left to the Syrian people, without military coercion or pressure.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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