Russia’s military push in Syria aimed at political deal?
DAMASCUS - Russia launched air strikes in Syria on September 30th; 20 days later, Syrian President Bashar Assad flew to Moscow on a secret visit to meet President Vladimir Putin. Soon afterward, the United States hastily arranged a four-way meeting in Austria regarding Assad’s fate.
The October 23rd meeting, which involved the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, failed to resolve differences on the future of Assad, who is backed by Russia, Iran and China, a senior Syrian official said.
A week later, another meeting — widely called Geneva II — of the four powers with Iran and other key players in the Syrian crisis resumed in Austria. At Geneva II, the Saudis accused Iran of seeking to dominate the region, drawing criticism from the Iranian team, which threatened to stay away from further talks scheduled in two weeks.
Despite the tiff, Iran’s attendance had the effect of setting aside some of the principles of Geneva I, which had called for a transitional government to oversee elections.
Instead, Russia and even US Secretary of State John Kerry started talking of allowing Assad to remain in office until new elections are held, sometime in the next two years. Saudi Arabia vehemently rejected this scenario but Iran insists on it and came out of the summit angry at what it branded Riyadh’s intransigence.
Washington and most of its Arab allies, reversing a stance stated since the March 2011 beginning of the Syrian war, are backing off their demand Assad step down. The shift points to a new willingness to negotiate with the Assad regime.
The Syrian official said Russia employed military tactics to advance its political aims, knowing well that it would not be able to sustain a long operation in Syria. To press the United States into dialogue, Moscow’s military touched a nerve in Washington and Arab capitals through strikes on groups the Americans and the Gulf states support.
Analysts argue that the Russian air raids on the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants, which the Assad regime considers “terrorist”, are largely cosmetic.
Syrian military analyst Mohammed Ahmed said the “dozens of air strikes on rural Aleppo’s south and west is a political message to Turkey, which supports, finances and arms the militias in those areas specifically”.
By the same token, Assad’s trip to Moscow — the Syrian leader’s first foreign trip since the war began — “was a clear message to Washington that Russia has all the Syrian files in its hands and any negotiations on the Syrian crisis must go through Russia”, Ahmed observed.
“Moscow flew Assad in on a Russian plane, alone, unescorted by any Syrian government official and sent him back home underlining the influence it commands in Syria.”
A top Syrian military official said one of the fruits of the Russian intervention in Syria is Assad’s acceptance to have presidential elections along with parliamentary elections approved earlier, something he had earlier rejected.
Russia’s presence on the ground in Syria “gives it the power to hold the strings and control the disputing sides in the conflict”, the official said. “It gives Russia the upper hand and a position of strength in talks with the others involved in the Syrian crisis, and to push for solutions based on middle-of-the-road settlements…
“If a solution gets off the ground, Russia will go down in history books as the country that succeeded in achieving what the United States, the United Nations and the Arab League failed to do.
“But one must not ignore that the US may respond to what they see as Putin stepping on their toes in Syria. This is why Russia also employed diplomacy to ensure that its forces won’t be dragged into the swamp of a prolonged war in Syria.”
With the Russian intervention, Iran took a back seat, a diplomatic source said. “An evident Iranian role in Syria breaches the Russian efforts in the country because Iran is anti-Israel and Moscow had pledged to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu that Israel’s security will be preserved,” he said.
Commenting on reports that Moscow is ready to secure air protection for the Syrian Army in its fight against ISIS with the possibility of reuniting the regular Syrian Army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in one front, the official said “this is totally unacceptable at least for the time being”.
The Syrian opposition believes the Russian military intervened in Syria primarily to save the Assad regime by forcing all sides into a political solution.
Sobhi al-Rifai, head of the executive bureau of the Syrian opposition’s Revolutionary Command Council, said the regime and its allies failed to “score any strategic victory, despite Russian air strikes targeting more than 450 FSA positions and only four ISIS bases. On the ground, they could not advance as our fighters confronted them with the few TOW (anti-tank) missiles they had.
“Thus, the regime will not be able to achieve any political victory since (it) failed militarily,” Rifai said.