Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Russia’s divisive plans

The Russians are trying to control the course of future talks on the Syrian crisis, either by naming participants or reinterpreting UN resolutions, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Having turned themselves into the number one military force in Syria, the Russians are now trying to control the political process. With negotiations between the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition slated for Geneva on 25 January, the Russians are not satisfied with the composition of the opposition’s delegation.

At first, Moscow tried to insert individuals of its own choice into the delegation, and then it started pushing for two independent opposition delegations to participate in the talks: one to be formed by the anti-regime opposition and one to be handpicked by the Russians.

On 18 December, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2254, which envisages talks leading to a transitional phase in Syria. The resolution clearly states that the Syrian opposition must freely choose its own representatives to the talks.

Even before the resolution was passed, the opposition had started talking about a unified delegation. Meeting on 10 December in Riyadh, opposition groups selected 45 members to participate in the upcoming talks.

One third of the members are to form the active team for the talks; one third is to act as a reserve for the active team; and one third is made up of technocrats and counsellors to support the negotiators with the information they need.

The UN resolution also calls for an end to the bombing of civilians, a termination of the siege on cities in Syria, and free passage for humanitarian relief.

However, none of these conditions has been met thus far, and the bombing of cities has escalated over the past few weeks. In the first week of 2016, the Russians waged nearly 1,000 air raids on opposition-held areas. Furthermore, the Syrian regime tightened its siege of various towns and cities, leading to known cases of death from starvation.

Now Russia says that it will not recognise the opposition delegation unless certain figures of its choosing are included, either in the main team or in a separate team that would attend the talks on an equal footing with the one chosen by the opposition.

The Russians have prepared a list of 15 people that they want to take part in the talks. At first, Moscow insisted that the individuals be included in the opposition’s team, but then it said that they should go to the talks as a separate delegation.

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has tried in vain to talk the Russians out of the two-delegation idea. Syrian military opposition groups have now threatened to boycott the Geneva conference if Moscow’s handpicked representatives are included.

The Russians have reacted by letting everyone know the extent of their hold over the Syrian regime. Moscow has leaked the text of a secret military agreement it signed with the Syrian Defence Ministry on 26 August last year that gave Russia the right to establish a military base at the Humaymim Airport in Latakia.

Russia has stationed 80 planes at this airport, from which 5,500 sorties have been carried out against targets in Syria so far.

The secret agreement guarantees Moscow the right to an “indefinite” military presence in Syria and adds that Russian soldiers will be absolved of any legal prosecution for actions committed in Syria.

The agreement makes the entry of Syrians into Russian-run military bases conditional on permission from Russian commanders. It also grants Russian officials unhindered passage, without impediments or searches, across Syrian borders.

Even more importantly, the Syrians are not allowed to call off the agreement unless a one-year advance notice is given. As a result, even if Damascus were to ask Moscow to repeal the deal, the Russians would still have the right to maintain their current course of action for an entire year.

With such a strong hold over the regime, Moscow is now trying to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254 in the way that suits it best. For example, Russian officials want the interim government, which is supposed to rewrite the country’s constitution and hold free elections, to be based on Syria’s existing government, while the opposition insists on an interim government that has no ties with the current regime.

Even people that Moscow has included on its list of opposition members seem do disagree with the Russian position.

Samir Eita, chairman of the Syrian Democratic Forum, whose name appears on the Russian list, does not seem to support the idea of two opposition teams going to the talks. “It is important to deal seriously and positively with the Higher Negotiations Committee [formed in Riyadh],” he said.

In order to maintain the country’s unity, the negotiating team must “include all the opposition parties,” Eita added.

The Democratic Forum would prefer to go to the talks as part of a group of civil society representatives, not as part of a hand-picked opposition delegation, he said. Civil society groups are qualified to mediate between the various strands of society and thus end the frictions between state institutions and the international community, he added.

Reem Turkmani, another opposition figure whose name appears on the Russian list, passionately disapproves of the two-delegation idea. “It is not in Syria’s interest to have two delegations for the opposition,” she said, explaining that this would give the regime an unfair edge in the talks.

Turkmani warned that divisions appearing in the ranks of the opposition could have a devastating effect on the country’s future, “denying it stability for years to come.” As long as the opposition is unable to resolve its differences through dialogue, it should not sit down for talks with the regime, she said.

Syrian opposition member Fawwaz Tallo is not optimistic about the future of the talks.

“This whole negotiations business is going to fall apart, at which point the Americans will take sides with the Russians and Iranians on the pretext of fighting terror. This will lead to the further proliferation of the revolutionary groups, to more radicalisation, and to more devastation for the region,” Tallo said.

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