Putin seeks to be peacemaker in Syria — on his terms
Beirut - A new round of Syria talks called by Russian President Vladimir Putin will convene in Kazakhstan in mid-January. Senior diplomats from Iran, Turkey, Russia and both camps in the Syrian conflict, including generals from the Syrian Army, are expected to attend.
The plan is to secure a Russian-brokered peace deal that will crown Moscow’s decisive victory in the battle of Aleppo in December, securing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with an internationally recognised peace agreement under which Assad would retain power.
Major stakeholders in the Syria war — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, the United States and the United Nations — have been excluded from the talks in the Kazakh capital, reportedly by Putin himself.
Despite that, the talks seem to be serious — perhaps more so than any other political initiative since the conflict erupted in 2011.
Russia is preparing invitations for members of the Syrian opposition as individuals, not as representatives of political groupings. That means, for example, that the Syrian National Coalition will not be invited but at least two of its former leaders — Mouaz al-Khatib and Ahmad al-Jarba — will.
The Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Council (HNC) has been vetoed by Damascus and Moscow, making way for a rebirth of the Turkish-supported opposition. This reflects Ankara’s new alliance with Moscow and Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria on August 24th.
Moscow is trying to secure some Kurdish representation at Kazakhstan, but the Turks oppose the idea “unless the Kurds are represented within the Syrian government delegation as part of the regime and not part of the opposition”.
There will be three topics on the Kazakhstan agenda. One is powering a ceasefire — backed by Russia and Turkey — that took effect December 30th and covered all of Syria except territories controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) — Deir ez-Zor, Al-Bukamal and Raqqa — and Idlib province, where the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly called al-Nusra Front, which was linked to al-Qaeda), holds sway.
Russia and Turkey took the ceasefire plan to the United Nations on December 31st and were rewarded with a unanimous vote supporting a resolution endorsing the deal and welcoming the Kazakhstan talks.
That gathering will also discuss the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a “transitional period” to end the Syrian war, leading to a new constitution and early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Given the venue and Putin’s backing for the conference, the interpretation of “transitional” will most probably be the Russian president’s: A transition from war to peace and from one-party rule to a power-sharing formula, but not from Assad to the Syrian opposition.
This is something that many believe the Turks have already conceded to Putin in private. If Putin gets his way, the transitional period would lead to early presidential elections, in which Assad gets to run for another term in office.
From Astana, the negotiations would then head to Geneva on February 8th to work within the UN framework to institutionalise what was agreed upon in Kazakhstan.
Putin is prepared to give full Russian guarantees to the Kazakhstan talks and assurances he will apply whatever pressure is needed on his Damascus allies to make the meeting a success.
The same applies to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is currently hosting private talks between Russian and Syrian generals and members of the Turkish-backed armed opposition in Syria.
The minutes of these talks, a prelude to Astana, are being signed off on by the Russians and Turks. From a legal perspective, this is supposed to give assurances that any deal will be implemented by the patrons, regardless of what Syrian players think and whether they agree to them or not.
This all stems from Russia’s thundering victory in Aleppo in December, which only happened after Turkey looked the other way as Russian warplanes pounded the rebel-held east of the ancient city, abandoning its proxies to facilitate a clear-cut Russian victory.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wants the Kazakhstan meeting to adopt a document put forth by Russia’s military in Istanbul, which would give de facto recognition for military groups that Moscow has branded “terrorist organisations”, mainly the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria.
Russia insisted on excluding them from the UN-sponsored Geneva III talks in Switzerland. Now Russian generals are sitting down with Ahrar al-Sham, much to the displeasure of Damascus, and want them to attend the Astana conference to start talking with the Syrian Army.
Ultimately Russia wants to give these rebel groups co-administration of their towns and villages in northern Syria and make them partners in the war against ISIS.
The problem is that Damascus and Tehran are aggressively lobbying for their extermination while Moscow is seemingly determined that Aleppo will be the last big battle in Syria — and the last big victory for the Syrian regime.
The rest of Syria has to be retaken either through political deals or enforced surrender honouring the national ceasefire of December 30th. Russian generals expect a breakthrough in early 2017.
By that time, Donald Trump and his team will have established themselves in Washington, with the Syria file completely in the hands of Putin and his Iranian and Turkish allies — a fait accompli to which President Trump will supposedly not object.