Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Russia, Syria and the US elections

Moscow is pressing the Syrian opposition to return to Geneva on its terms before a new US president enters the White House, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The second round of the Geneva negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad found both sides sticking to their positions. The regime refused to discuss any vision of a political transition but its own, while stepping up its violations of the truce.

It has continued to lay siege to Syrian cities and deny the entry of aid in the hope of derailing the Geneva talks and taking up the military option favoured by it and Iran. The Russian and American disregard of the violations of the ceasefire has helped the regime, as has Russia’s praise of its conduct at the negotiating table.

Damascus has been assisted by waning regional and international support for the Syrian opposition, restrictions on opposition military actions and the arms embargo, and the threat of further Russian air strikes.

The opposition has been doing its best to manoeuvre, agreeing on the need for national unity, the return of the Golan Heights, the preservation of state institutions, and support for the army, provided it is subordinated to the transitional government and restructured.

However, it has clung onto its demand for the formation of a transitional governing body in Syria with full powers and no role for the current president.

The Geneva talks were not limited to the two warring sides in Syria, along with Russia and the US. Iran’s presence was also tangible, and as the talks were underway Tehran announced the dispatch of troops from the 65th Brigade of the Iranian army to Syria and the continuing arrival of Afghan fighters.

The Iranian position was articulated by Kamal Khirazi, chair of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations in the office of the Iranian revolutionary guide in Damascus, who said, “The negotiations in Geneva must consider the rights of the people and the legitimate Syrian government.”

Iran would “reject any outcome that goes against this,” he said, raising concerns about the opposing position of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both of which insist on the ouster of the Syrian president.

The US stance has been the most ambiguous, since it took no position on salvaging the Geneva talks and made no attempt to balance the pro-regime Russian position. The US had wanted a resolution to the crisis that balanced the interests of international and regional parties and could be imposed on the Syrian parties, preventing any one of them from making significant military gains.

Such a resolution would have allowed it to establish a new geopolitical balance in the region that would have rested on both Sunni (Saudi Arabia) and Shia (Iran) pillars. The US has therefore rejected direct military intervention in the conflict, since this would give military victory to the Syrian military opposition and its allies.

At the same time, the US has worked to prevent the regime and its allies from making decisive military gains by assisting the opposition in countering the regime’s military offensives. This has only deepened the rift between the US and Saudi Arabia, while US cooperation with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has stoked the concerns of Turkey, which sees this as a threat to its national security given the link between the PYD and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group in Turkey.

For its part, Russia sought several objectives, including cementing its presence in the eastern Mediterranean, using this as a platform to annoy the US into recognising it as an equal, claiming the position of equal partner in the resolution of international conflicts, and furthering its hopes of an end to Western economic sanctions following its intervention in Ukraine.

A continued Russian presence in Syria would also strengthen its regional and international position among the BRICS group of emerging nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Eurasian Union, providing a counterweight to China’s expansion in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“The resolution of the Syrian conflict is not the principal objective of Russian foreign policy,” said Leonid Isaev, a research fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “More important is setting Russia up as a major player on the international stage.”

Moscow has thus been sticking with the Syrian regime, explaining why it has not only continued its military intervention, but has also attempted to impose its own political solution. This would prove its mettle as a superpower equal to Washington in managing international and regional issues.

Both the US and Russia view the Syrian crisis as part of their own larger conflict, played out in various places and across several issues. Tensions between them have flared over long-standing issues such as the US missile shield in Europe, the extension of NATO to the Russian border and Western sanctions, and newer ones like the dispatch of a NATO tank brigade to the Baltic, the deployment of a US destroyer in the Black Sea, and Washington’s decision to extend its missile shield in South Korea.

Such tensions have been reflected in the sharp escalation of the use of Russian aircraft and infantry in Aleppo.

Straining under its own political and economic burdens, the EU has made it a priority to stem the flow of refugees from Syria, prevent the spread of terrorism, and find ways to stop the wave of Islamophobia that is sweeping the continent continue out of fear of the refugees.

It has thus concluded a deal with Turkey, offering major sums and allowing Turks to enter EU territory without a visa. It has also unreservedly blessed the US-Russian understanding in Syria, despite its own marginal regional and international role.

It was in this confused and complex context that the second round of the Geneva talks was held. Moscow’s failure to persuade Washington to accept a comprehensive deal on the outstanding issues spurred it to obstruct the negotiations, side with the Syrian regime, and insist on the president’s survival, turning a blind eye to the regime’s violations of the truce and the influx of Iranian support.

The Syrian opposition is working to contain Russia and to lower its demands through intensive outreach to the international and regional forces that support it. It also hopes it can shore up the consensus between the political and armed opposition.

Leading opposition sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the opposition negotiators would continue to insist on the inclusion of armed factions in the talks, particularly those that have accepted a political solution.

They will also continue to adhere to the framework for the talks, most importantly the Geneva I Declaration and UN Security Council Resolutions 2218 and 2254, affirming the pivotal importance of the latter for the Geneva I Declaration. If a third round of negotiations is convened, the opposition will also demand a clear agenda before the talks begin.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the US has been undecided on its policy, a stance Russia has exploited to extend its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Supporting the Syrian regime without hesitation, it has sought to bring the opposition to heel, pressuring it to abandon its demands for regime change and adopt a solution that would guarantee the survival of the regime and its head.

It has been assisted in this by American passivity and by US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to be directly involved in the region.

Today, Russia seems eager to convene the Geneva talks on its own conditions to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. It wants to resolve matters before the US wakes up to a new Middle East policy under a new president after the US presidential elections.

Settling political issues in the Middle East to its liking will be much easier for Russia with Obama in office rather than his successor, regardless of the affiliation of the next occupant of the White House because the next US administration is unlikely to maintain the Obama administration’s passivity and hesitation.

The US will be preoccupied with the elections this summer. By this time next year, the next US president will have settled into office and will have reviewed outstanding domestic and foreign issues, while US institutions will have set the outlines of US policy. The Russians thus have a full year to play virtually alone in the dangerous field of the Middle East.

The Syrian people are now embarking on an even more difficult phase when the conflict is likely to come to a head, sacrifices will increase, and human and material casualties will mount before the picture becomes clearer. With the Syrian people’s interests and ambitions hanging in the balance, this phase calls for the utmost discipline, seriousness and responsibility from the international community.

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