Lausanne flops as Russians buy time to crush Aleppo
Stakeholders in the Syrian war have failed again to bring the horrific saga to a close, as evidenced by the collapse of the Lausanne peace talks in mid-October.
Expectations were not high to begin with, even though Lausanne marked the first direct contact between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov since bilateral talks over Syria ended in September with a massive assault by Russian and Syrian forces on the divided northern city of Aleppo.
The Russians went all-out with the conference, nevertheless, just to tell their critics “we’re still committed to a diplomatic outcome”, when they are really stalling until the next US president is elected in November.
By January 2017, when the new president is sworn in, they hope to have reconquered the rebel-held eastern sector of Aleppo and secured the main highway from there to Damascus.
Once that is achieved, whatever hopes the Saudi-backed opposition had about controlling parts of northern Syria, let alone toppling the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus, will be dead.
The Russians were making three things clear: They do not plan to stop in Aleppo. They do not plan to share power with the Saudis or the Americans in Syria. And they do not plan to lose the war.
Lavrov is peddling an “Aleppo First” strategy, claiming that for any breakthrough to succeed, all sides need to eradicate both the Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JSF, or Conquest of Syria Front) that was, until July, known as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. Moscow considers both groups to be terrorists.
If that happened, it would be music to the ears of Assad’s government because JSF is the most serious remaining challenge on the battlefield — and the only one with a sizeable and effective Syrian power base.
If JSF is out of the picture, Lavrov apparently thinks Damascus and Moscow could easily overwhelm eastern Aleppo, greatly improving Assad’s negotiating position at any further peace talks if they are held under Russia’s terms.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently told France’s TF1 television channel that Assad has “promised” a new Syrian constitution under which presidential elections would take place.
“If people don’t vote for President Assad, then the required democratic change will happen (anyway) but without foreign armed intervention and under strict international control,” Putin said.
“I don’t understand who could find this proposal unacceptable. It’s a democratic solution to the question of power in the country. It’s the only possible solution to the problem.”
Basically, Putin wants to retake Aleppo and maintain Assad in power — two things Saudi Arabia adamantly opposes.
The Saudis insist that before any transition of power, Assad must step down and they say Moscow is greatly exaggerating JSF’s fighting strength in eastern Aleppo.
They are suggesting escorting JSF fighters out of Aleppo and replacing them with “moderates” of the Free Syria Army, a proposal Lavrov shot down in Lausanne.
Saudi Arabia’s hard-line stance is not shared by Turkey, another major rebel supporter that wants to see Assad gone.
The Turks went to Switzerland with a six-point agenda, discussed earlier in Istanbul by Putin and his Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It starts with a nationwide ceasefire that leads to humanitarian aid under UN auspices to all besieged towns and villages. Ankara also wants to unite efforts between Turkey, Russia and the United States in the war on terror.
Then comes a no-fly zone, something Turkey has sought for years. Ideally, it would extend along Turkey’s border with northern Syria, embracing the strategic cities of Jarabulus, occupied by the Turks since August, Manbij, al-Bab and Azaz.
The size of the zone would be about 5,000 sq. km and would be used both to block Kurdish efforts to establish an independent statelet on the Syrian side of the frontier, as well as provide a springboard in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).
In exchange for agreeing to this demand, Erdogan is prepared to turn a blind eye to Russia and Syria crushing the rebels in eastern Aleppo.
State-run media in Damascus and Moscow, far from trashing the Lausanne gathering, actually reported that it went well because the Russians sought neither a breakthrough nor a ceasefire but, rather, to make a strong articulation on where they both stood regarding the fate of Aleppo and any future political deal.
Moscow made it clear that the remorseless assault on battered Aleppo will continue until the rebels there surrender to Assad’s forces.
The Russians insisted that the Geneva III talks, suspended since April, are not dead and will resume after Aleppo has been neutralised, which they hope to achieve before the US elections in early November.
This is the end objective of the Russian Air Force — securing Damascus and Aleppo and cornering what remains of Islamic groups in Idlib and Deir ez-Zor — thus imposing a reality the next US president will have to deal with.
They believe that the United States is incapable of offering more than lip service to Syria’s rebels in the dying weeks of Barack Obama’s administration and will be too busy with domestic issues between January and July 2017 to do anything serious about Syria.
This, they assess, gives Putin time to enforce his will on all stakeholders in the war — militarily first and then politically.