Russians bring mixed message to Washington

Friday 19/02/2016
Vitaly Naumkin

Washington - Moscow does not see a political future for Syrian President Bashar Assad and can find common ground with the United States on Syria, Rus­sian experts said during a panel dis­cussion in Washington.

However, the Russian delegation warned that rising tensions between Middle Eastern regional powers as well as low oil prices and hints that the United States might deploy troops to Syria complicate a path to a resolution to the Syrian crisis.

“I don’t think Moscow sees a fu­ture for Assad as a political leader… We have already pitched this kind of compromise [to the United States],” said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a scholar at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. She spoke to The Arab Weekly after appearing January 27th on a panel hosted by the Wood­row Wilson Center in Washington.

Zvyagelskaya added that it would be “counterproductive” to insist on Assad’s removal as a precondition to peace talks. “Assad will have no in­centive to participate in any negotia­tions if that’s the precondition,” she said. She added that Russia wants to collaborate with the United States on finding a resolution in Syria.

Assad’s role in a post-war Syria is one of the main sticking points be­tween the United States and Russia, with the former sometimes insisting on Assad’s removal as a precondi­tion to any agreement.

The Russian delegation included Vitaly Naumkin, director of the In­stitute of Oriental Studies. Naum­kin presided over talks in Moscow in 2015 with some of Syria’s warring factions. The delegation met US pol­icymakers during their visit.

Naumkin said Russia is pursuing a “two-track approach” to Syria: “One is assisting Syria in confront­ing jihadists… and the second is a political track, pushing both sides towards negotiations,” he said.

Russia began air strikes on Syrian territories in 2015, claiming it was targeting Islamic State (ISIS) posi­tions. But according to international rights organisations, Russia has been attacking strongholds of Syrian rebel factions that have been fight­ing both ISIS and the Assad regime’s troops.

Reports place civilian deaths by Russian air strikes at more than 400. Locals in rebel-held suburbs of Homs and Damascus blame Rus­sians for striking at least one school and an open market in December, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured.

The panel discussion became awkward when Naumkin abruptly walked out of the room after a dip­lomat from the British embassy confronted the Russian delegation about air strikes that did not ap­pear to target ISIS. Naumkin later returned to answer other questions from the audience.

Observers of Russian military involvement in Syria say some of the air strikes are indeed designed to weaken anti-Assad factions be­fore pushing them to the negotiat­ing table. For example, strikes on southern Syria, which is not part of ISIS territory, helped government troops regain the strategic southern town of Sheikh Miskin, the kind of territorial win that has happened in other parts of Syria since Russian air strikes commenced in September.

“We’re doing our job there, and we’re trying to help the government in Damascus,” Naumkin said. “We were invited by this government and we consider it to be legitimate. The only alternative is that Damas­cus will be turned into the capital of the caliphate.”

Russia views the Assad regime as “one of the last secular, nationalist regimes in the region”, according to Naumkin.

He added that sanctions imposed by the United States against Russia have little effect domestically but said Russia is suffering from the low price of oil, which he expects to remain low “for the foreseeable fu­ture”, especially when Iran starts to add to the global oil supply.

Naumkin warned that the low oil prices have regional implica­tions. “It puts certain limitations on countries involved in the balance of power, including Saudi Arabia, Rus­sia, the US and Iran,” he said, add­ing that the exacerbation of hostili­ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia might derail Syrian talks.

Tehran and Riyadh are engaged in proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The two regional powers severed diplomatic ties in early January af­ter the kingdom executed a Saudi Shia cleric, sparking attacks on its embassy in Tehran.

Naumkin warned that Ameri­can troops being deployed in Syria would be a “game changer”. He was apparently referring to recent comments by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter regarding increasing the US military presence in Iraq, though Carter did not clarify any plans for Syria.

The United States has about 50 special operations forces troops in Syria to support local, anti-Assad forces.