Moscow pushes Syria talks to promote its agenda
OTTAWA - August has been a busy month for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has travelled throughout the Middle East for high-level meetings on Syria. Russia’s intentions for Lavrov’s diplomacy and his effort to renew the political negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition, however, are not clear.
During a recent visit to Moscow, head of the Syrian opposition Khaled Khoja said that Russian leadership is “not clinging” to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Khoja added that Russia expressed an “understanding” of the opposition’s vision for a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
The opposition, however, has been sceptical of Moscow’s intentions for diplomacy between Assad and his opponents.
“The Russians are not attached to the figure of the regime, Assad himself,” said Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “They are more attached to preserving their interests and the structure of the regime that they have been investing in since the 1950s.”
After meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on August 17th, Lavrov affirmed, however, that both Tehran and Moscow reject any calls for Assad to step down.
Russia and Iran — Assad’s most reliable allies — are heavily engaged in the multi-proxy war in Syria and this high-level meeting between the two diplomats could conceivably shape Moscow and Tehran’s ad hoc policy towards the conflict in Syria and events in the surrounding region.
“The Russians have a lot of interests across the region and definitely they do not want the Iranians to proceed them in terms of having access to all of the region,” notes Abou Zeid.
In recent months, Moscow became a hub for talks regarding Syria. Along with regional officials, representatives of the opposition and the government made multiple visits to Russia, singling its apparent determination to have peace negotiations in its capital. Two rounds of such talks have failed.
All discussions among the Syrian parties and international players for a solution to the crisis ended unsuccessfully, largely due to disagreement over Assad’s role in any potential transitional government.
Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, said that a key component of Russian policy throughout the crisis in Syria has been to position itself as a major international mediator and great power player. For Russia, Itani said, “any Russian-sponsored negotiation process that attracts international attention is in itself an achievement”.
“Russia has interests in Syria, foremost of which is preventing the United States and its allies from dictating the character of the regime that would replace what is, after all, a long-time Russian ally,” he added.
Russia has benefited from the conflict in Syria through trading weapons and ammunition to government forces. Damascus recently received a shipment of six Mikoyan MiG-31 fighter jets from Russia as part of a 2012 deal.
In light of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, the Kremlin plans to extend its weapons sales to Tehran.
As sanctions against Iran are gradually lifted, Russia will be able to complete delivery of S-300 missiles — a powerful air defence system — to Tehran.
Historically, Russia has managed to maintain a strong relationship with the Ba’ath Party in the region. In recent years, ties with the Assad regime have strengthened and Russia has become Syria’s main source of arms and ammunition.
Russia has supported Syria diplomatically as well, as it, along with China, used the right to veto in the UN Security Council on four consecutive occasions to protect the Assad government from international intervention.
Russia has recently tried to reach out to Gulf states that back the Syrian opposition. Moscow’s government called for coordination between the Syrian regime and members of an international coalition, including Saudi Arabia, to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir responded that there would be no cooperation with Assad’s government, insisting that there is no place for Assad in the future of Syria.
Khalid al-Naser, a member of the political opposition Syrian National Coalition, told The Arab Weekly that Russia has tried to represent the Assad regime as an option to counter terrorism since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.
Naser said that, by pulling back from political engagement in Syria, the United States has encouraged Russia to take a diplomatic role in Syria. Russia has taken advantage of the opportunity to display its strategies on the international stage, he noted.