Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

What kind of a deal?

According to opponents of the Syrian regime, Moscow is using its intervention in their country as a “bargaining chip” in its wider diplomatic strategy, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Moscow is throwing its military weight behind Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, while at the same time seeking an international consensus on the crisis in the country and perhaps also pressuring its long-term ally in Damascus.

 Little is known about what kind of a deal the Russians are trying to make in Syria. When they invited the Syrian president for a visit to Moscow earlier this month, they kept it under wraps, only disclosing the news afterwards and in a terse statement to the media.

It is not known whether they threatened, cajoled or just plain told Al-Assad that he should take any face-saving deal he was offered.

 Meanwhile, Oman’s Foreign Minister Youssef Bin Alawi paid a surprise visit to Damascus to meet with Al-Assad. “The Syrian people... welcome the sultanate’s sincere efforts to help Syrians realise their aspirations in a way that preserves the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Al-Assad said. Bin Alawi stressed that Oman was keen to uphold Syria’s “unity and stability”.

Oman is known as a mediator in an otherwise tumultuous region fraught with crisscrossing rivalries and alliances. Oman, is also the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nation to maintain a good working relationship with Syria’s main ally Iran. Syria’s foreign minister Walid Al-Muallim last traveled to Oman to meet Al-Alawi in August, while the head of the Syrian political opposition was in Muscat earlier this month. It was his first official  visit to a GCC state since fighting broke out in Syria and Damascus severed ties with several GGC states.

Al-Assad was flown to Moscow in a Russian military plane. He did not have a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was not accompanied by any Syrian officials, perhaps to prevent leaks about the meeting.

It was Al-Assad’s first trip outside Syria since the 2011 uprising, and it may turn out to be crucial for his political survival.

 The Syrian opposition remains sceptical about Russia’s intentions. Hadi Al-Bahrah, former chief of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), said that the way Moscow brought Al-Assad in for consultations suggests that the discussions were of a sensitive nature.

 “Al-Assad didn’t want anyone else to know what was discussed,” he said. Neither the Syrian nor the Russian media have commented on the talks except in the most general terms. A brief statement from the Russian presidency noted that “terrorism” and “the situation in Syria” were discussed.

 This has not stopped analysts from speculating on the substance of the talks. Some say that the Russians offered Al-Assad a face-saving formula that would allow him to stay in power as a figurehead during a transitional phase run by a power-sharing government of moderates. Others say that Moscow offered him political asylum.

 Monzir Aqbib, a prominent NCSROF figure, said that Moscow is trying to pose as a kingmaker in Syria. “Moscow is sending out a message to the international community to the effect that it is the one to talk to about the future of Syria,” he said. The Russians keep talking about terrorism, but this is just a way of hiding their true geopolitical interests, Aqbib added.

 According to unconfirmed reports, Moscow has obtained Al-Assad’s consent to a negotiated deal that would include a power-sharing formula, constitutional changes and early elections. On 23 October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Vienna with his Turkish, Saudi and US counterparts and presented a plan for a ceasefire, a reconciliation government, and parliamentary and presidential elections.

 According to the plan, both the pro-regime and anti-regime militias would be integrated into the regular army. The Russians said that groups that do not accept the ceasefire will risk being targeted in air raids by countries that support the deal.

 The sticking point remains Al-Assad’s fate, with the Russians trying to keep him in power for a face-saving period, or even until the end of his presidential term in 2021, and the Saudis, French and Americans insisting on excluding him from any peace deal.

 Iran has been excluded from the talks thus far, but even Western diplomats admit that it will have to participate in negotiations at some point.

 French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that Al-Assad, who has caused the deaths of 250,000 people, “cannot be part of” a solution in Syria.

 After the Vienna meeting, Lavrov said that Russia is willing to offer air cover to the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) in any operations it carries out against the Islamic State (IS) group. This is the first time a Russian official has spoken of the FSA as a main player in Syria.

 Habib Haddad, a former Syrian information minister who is now part of the opposition, said that the Russians are trying to promote their own interests in the region and not those of the Syrian people.

 “Moscow considers Syria to be its last foothold in the region. It is not that it has no plans for Syria, but that its plans suit it more than they suit Syria,” he said.

 According to Haddad, Russia is using Syria as a bargaining chip. Said Hadda, “For Russia, Syria is like Ukraine. Moscow will keep bargaining until the last minute to defend its own interests, not those of Al-Assad and his regime.”

 The armed Syrian opposition, which has borne the brunt of Russian bombing raids in recent weeks, has been dismissive of Moscow’s peace overtures. Russia should stop shelling the Syrian opposition before talking about a peace deal, members of the armed opposition said.

 However, some members of the opposition said the Russian overtures might end up bringing the country closer to peace. According to Al-Bahrah, the Vienna meeting could “pave the way for serious negotiations and help define the main issues for future talks.” He added, “The Vienna meeting wasn’t a failure. It was a first step to negotiations that may last until the end of the year.”

After a month of Russian air strikes in Syria, the regime’s forces have still not made significant gains. But IS, the group the Russians like to represent as the main foe, has claimed advances on more than one front.

 This shows that the Russian military strategy in Syria may not be as successful as Moscow would like the world to think. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that its diplomatic efforts are doomed.

 With the Russians on board, and with Moscow clearly hoping to be accepted as part of an international endeavour to defeat IS, a deal may be in the making. But what kind of deal will it be? The jury is still out for now.

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