Moscow seeks talks with Syrian rebels to overturn UN effort
Beirut - Russia and Iran are toying with the idea of having a national dialogue conference in Damascus, attended in two stages, first by the Syrian opposition and then by President Bashar Assad’s government.
The target date is January 2017 and is intended to coincide with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next US president. A second date, pencilled in by authorities in Damascus, is mid-April next year.
The longer it takes to launch a dialogue, the more time it gives the Russian and Syrian armies to overwhelm the rebel-held sector of the strategic northern city of Aleppo, increasingly seen as a battle that could determine the outcome of the Syrian war.
The ultimate purpose of the political manoeuvre is to find a Russian-sanctioned replacement for the UN-mandated talks in Switzerland, known as Geneva III. Those talks, for which outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry aggressively lobbied, are increasingly seen as a thing of the past for Damascus, Tehran and Moscow.
Geneva III, suspended indefinitely since April, sought to launch a “transitional period”, which was supposed to start in the summer, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Russia wanted a “cabinet of national unity” led by Assad to lead the transition from war to peace and from one-party rule to a power-sharing formula, rather than having the opposition replace Assad’s rule.
The Saudi-backed opposition wanted a transitional governmental body to run the war-ravaged country with specified figures from the regime, provided Assad relinquished power, something he refuses to do.
Ultimately, Moscow and Tehran hope Geneva III will be replaced by Damascus I, conducted under Russian rules of engagement, with the blessing of the Trump White House, something the lame-duck Obama administration would not countenance.
Iran, whose military support for Assad has matched Russia’s deployment, had considered holding such a conference in Oman to give it a patina of credibility. The Russians initially wanted it in Cairo for the same reason.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi welcomed the idea, reflecting warming Syrian-Egyptian relations, but refused to allow members of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood to set foot in Egypt.
With no alternative, Russia and Iran agreed to have the event in Damascus, providing guarantees for the opposition delegates that they would not be arrested or harassed if they attended.
All of them have Syrian arrest warrants — and in some cases death warrants — hanging over their heads.
The regime reluctantly agreed to the no harassment clause and the notion of the conference itself, on condition that Assad’s government has the final say on who is invited.
It has vetoed prominent figures in the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, such as its chief, Riad Hijab, a Syrian prime minister who defected in 2012, and Mohammed Alloush, commander of the Islamic Army fighting in the countryside around Damascus.
Thanks to Russian mediation, the government has also, surprisingly, agreed to host prominent figures such as Mouaz al-Khatib, a Damascus cleric-turned-politician and former head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and his successor, Ahmad al-Jarba, once a Saudi favourite.
To date, both men have declined to attend or even receive official invitations but their names were put forward by the ageing Hassan Abdul Azim, a respected Damascus-based opposition figure who leads the outlawed National Coordination Committee, an Arab nationalist organisation backed by Egypt and Russia. He has acted as go-between in talks between Moscow and opposition figures inside Syria and abroad.
The idea behind the current initiative is to create a united body of opposition attendees, tentatively called the Damascus Platform and for them to sit face-to-face with the regime at a second stage of talks, also in the Syrian capital.
This would merge the Russian-backed opposition with those who are regime-friendly, mixing them with key opposition figures from the diaspora, with the aim of dominating the Saudi- and Turkish-backed SNC and the High Negotiations Committee.
Neither Iran nor Russia will agree to any power-sharing formula with figures who oppose their battlefield support for Assad.
If Moscow gets its way, the regime will reach a deal with the Damascus Platform that calls for a cabinet of national unity and for early parliamentary and presidential elections, in which Assad would run for a fourth term.
The belief in Damascus is that Trump, once installed in the White House, will not obstruct or object to such a formula and nor will France, which is heading towards a political earthquake of its own with the dramatic rise of former prime minister François Fillon, widely tipped to win presidential elections in May 2017.
If Fillon, who advocates working with both Moscow and Assad to fight Islamic State jihadists, wins, he would be an automatic ally of Trump, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If the presidents of the United States, Russia and France support the Damascus I plan, it may well get off the ground and be accepted internationally as a serious initiative to create a road map for peace that all sides will respect.