Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Russia withdraws from Syria

As the Geneva Conference on Syria resumed this week, the sudden Russian decision to withdraw its troops has radically changed calculations on the country’s future, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement, at the start of negotiations in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition, that he will withdraw Russian troops from the country has shifted the terrain once more, and raised numerous questions. Last September, Russia’s sudden intervention in Syria came as a shock that recalibrated the political and military balance of power in the region.

Putin said that Russia has “accomplished its military mission in Syria” and that it will now maintain two bases, one in Latakia and the other in Tartous, to monitor the ongoing ceasefire. He said that Russia will also increase its participation in attempts to resolve the Syrian crisis.

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad immediately tried to present the Russian decision as having come in consultation with the Syrian government, but members of the opposition speaking in Geneva this week considered this unlikely. They said that Russia began to abandon Al-Assad after he balked at a political resolution that would require him to relinquish power within 18 months.

Some commentators believe that the Russian move is the result of a US-Russian understanding that the Syrian regime should not be allowed to thwart the political resolution process. Others think that the Russian decision was made due to the high cost of the war and Russia’s losses as a result of the current decline in international oil prices. Some have gone further and said that Russia was forced to withdraw under a Saudi threat of all-out war by the coalition it leads in Syria.

 Regardless of the reasons behind Putin’s announcement, Syrian opposition figure Louay Safi believes that the Russian decision now holds out an opportunity for the international community.

“The international community has the chance to pressure the regime and its allies and use the negotiations in Geneva to initiate a political transition that will prevent the entire Levant from sliding into a conflict that will threaten the future of the EU and the global order,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“This would allow extremism to expand not only in the Arab region, but also into Europe, where the extreme right has already begun exploiting the forced displacement of the Syrian people by the Al-Assad regime and its allies to expand its influence and fundamentally shift political conditions,” he said.

With the resumption of the Geneva Conference, there were hopes that a resolution would be found after the Syrian opposition agreed to attend, having earlier refused to take part in the ill-fated first round on 3 February that ultimately did not convene. The hope is based on two major factors: the quasi-success of the ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US, and the desire on both their parts to see a swift resolution to the crisis.

For his part, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is set to meet separately with delegations from the Syrian government and the opposition. With no direct meeting scheduled between the two delegations, de Mistura will act as a go-between in the hope that he can narrow the gap between the two sides and bring them together at the same table in the next round of negotiations.

Before the negotiations, de Mistura announced he was confident that this round will address contentious issues, including the formation of an inclusive government, the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of presidential and legislative elections under UN aegis within 18 months.

He stressed that the humanitarian issues and the lifting of the sieges on Syrian towns and cities are a done deal and that the ceasefire is open-ended, confirming that the priority now is a change in the country’s government.

This logic has appeased the Syrian opposition to a certain extent, but the regime is not happy. Each party has announced that it will come to Geneva holding fast to its positions and demands, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has strongly criticised de Mistura’s statement, saying that it was “not objective”.

Muallem announced that a regime delegation will discuss changes to the current government to make it more participatory, amendment of the constitution, and the possible holding of parliamentary elections. But he said the delegation is not prepared to discuss presidential elections, describing a change in the role of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as “a red line because that is the affair of the Syrian people”.

 The Syrian opposition said that this round of talks will last only ten days, ending on 24 March, and that it will focus solely on the political transition. Senior negotiator Mohamed Alloush said the talks will be conducted to achieve a genuine political transition in Syria, pursuant to the Geneva Declaration and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that provides for the creation of transitional governing body with full executive authority.

 He stressed that the Syrian opposition wants “to return authority to the people and to rid it of the tyranny practiced by the Syrian regime for the last 40 years.” Salem Al-Meslet, a spokesman for the Higher Negotiations Committee, dismissed the foreign minister’s statement, saying, “If it had been made by the Russian foreign minister, we would have reviewed it with care because the situation in Syria is not in Muallem’s hands, but in Russia’s.”

The opposition has grave doubts about the possibility of reaching an agreement with the regime and believes Muallem’s statements are designed to declare the failure of the talks before they even begin, especially since he has said the regime will not make any concessions in connection with the leadership of the regime. The fate of Al-Assad is a crucial point of disagreement between the parties to the conflict and their respective supporting states.

“To go to Geneva, a participant just needs a plane ticket from his sponsor and a room booked at a luxury hotel,” said Syrian dissident Mukhlis Al-Khatib. “But reaching a political solution requires good faith from the negotiators and the credibility of their statements.”

Said Al-Khatib, “But everyone is setting impossible conditions, and each party is refusing to make concessions. The foreign minister has announced that there will be no negotiations on presidential elections and Al-Assad, as if Syria were exclusively the person of Al-Assad. The opposition has said that the transitional phase cannot begin under this regime or its head and made the formation of a transitional government conditional on Al-Assad’s leaving. How can these negotiators reach any kind of a solution?”

However, the envoys of the major superpowers say that this time around the talks are more serious and will be conducted based on a set agenda to which the Syrian opposition and the regime must adhere.

“The American-Russian understanding has evolved markedly,” an informed Western diplomatic source close to the negotiations told the Weekly. “Both sides will work to impose a defined timetable with specific dates. This time around no party will be permitted to obstruct the negotiations or deviate from their conditions, and they will lead to the creation of a transitional authority and new constitution within no more than six months after the start of a new round of talks.”

According to the source, France, Britain and Germany have expressed support for the US-Russian understanding, which will lead to a smooth transition without the collapse of state institutions, although these will need to be restructured to be more representative of all Syrians.

Guarantees and reassurances must also be given to Alawite leaders in Syria that Al-Assad’s departure will not constitute a threat to their future or the safety of their community as a whole.

At the outset of the talks, the Syrian regime and opposition were in agreement on one issue: the rejection of the federation sought by the Kurds in northern Syria. Both sides have emphasised the need for a centralised state and rejected a federation of any type without a referendum open to all Syrians.

The opposition has strongly opposed the inclusion of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the talks. The PYD aspires to either a federation or secession and is cooperating with the Syrian regime, Russia and the US in the hope of achieving its goal.

But all the parties realise that a failure to find a political resolution will spell the end of the already fragile ceasefire and will send the country back for another chapter of a pointless war that seems to promise no good for any party.

Most Syrians hope that the international community will be serious this time around in putting an end to the war and forcing the negotiating parties in Geneva to accept a political resolution that will guarantee Syria’s transition to a territorially united, democratic and pluralistic state.

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