Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad paid a secret visit to Moscow Tuesday Oct 20. It was not before Assad returned back to Damascus that news of his visit was aired in the two capitals. On Wednesday 21st, Russia’s President called both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan to brief them on the results of Assad’s visit. The meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Vienna was approved during these conversations and in coordination with Secretary John Kerry.
The point of agreement emerging from these intense effort is a plan to end the Syrian crisis and convert it into a war against terrorism. The turning point which made the deal negotiable is Assad’s qualified acceptance -in principle- not to remain in power after a transitional period. Saudi Arabia and Turkey insisted that Assad must leave. Kerry said recently that he could stay only for a transitional period. The new Assad position seems to have turned into the point of an acceptable compromise to all parties.
Assad acceptance to step down is “in principle” and is conditional on all parties acceptance of a Russian proposal for the nature of the transitional deal and the future political structure that will emerge after. Discussions in Vienna will be centered on the outlines of both parts of the deal. Vienna would be a mere first step in a long road of negotiations about the details of both points. An agreement to keep the development within diplomatic channels was granted in order to avoid weakening Assad internal position in Syria.
It is not easy to predict the outcome of this new round of diplomatic efforts. But the main features of the moment are more or less obvious. Mr. Putin moved quickly to harvest the fruits of the impact of his intervention. This intervention gave the impression-which is merely an impression- that the balance of power in the Syrian war has improved in favor of Assad. It therefore gave him a better chance to strike a balanced deal. Just before Putin’s intervention, Assad was losing grounds rapidly. All external assistance did not help in slowing the rapid erosion of his camp. There were some signs that at one point, not in the far future, the Syrian regime will collapse from within.
But while the balance of power was tilting towards the Syrian opposition, the important point has always been the degree to which the sides are aware of that. As Dr. Kissinger told us decades ago, an equilibrium is not achieved by the factual elements of power, but by the consciousness of the balance which is brought about only through testing it.
In other words, what is important is consciousness, perceptions, and a clear absorption of the “meaning” and weight of these elements of power. And for that reason, Mr. Putin had to move fast to explore a political solution. He did not want to be dragged to the whirlpool of “testing” a la Vietnam.
For it was clear, even to Mr. Putin, that Russia will get tired in Syria fast. And that Mr. Obama was tired even before doing anything meaningful. It is therefore only logical that Mr. Putin had to move diplomatically under the umbrella of the psychological impact that his intervention left and before this intervention is seriously tested. Testing it would have made the Russians bleed, which Mr. Putin cannot afford, or would have forced the Russian President to double down, which is even more difficult to afford.
Now, the Obama administration is tired after Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not want to allocate any meaningful resources in the Middle East anymore. The Kremlin sees clearly that it does not have what it takes for a long engagement in Syria. But do the regional players feel the same?
If yes, it will certainly be possible to pull a political solution out of the jaws of the current Syrian madness. If no, the question which will emerge would be: Can the US and Russia fill the space between the regional players’ reluctance to accept a deal and the moment of signing one? In other words, can the two powers exert enough pressure on the regional parties to carry them to the point of signing?
There are arguments in the two sides of any answer.
The Iranian must have understood that the best they can hope for is an enclave in west Syria that will certainly be subject to relentless attacks until they leave. The Arabs must have understood that the continuation of the Syrian crisis encourages terrorist Jihadists to expand. This brings the smiling declaration that a solution is possible.
While we do not say that a solution is impossible, the truth is that things are not as simple to justify such a smiling declaration. There are hardliners on both sides of the fence. The ambition to win is alive in the mind of both, more so in the minds of Arabs though.
Syria has never been solely a Syrian crisis. Its regional dimension is genuine and essential. Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Riyadh cannot accept a political solution that ends with Assad in power. Now, Putin says to the Saudi King: Your Majesty, Assad agreed to leave at the end of a transition. We have fulfilled your condition. Now, let us move ahead. Let us talk about the nature of the transition and what will follow. So, the King authorized Jubeir to go to Geneva.
Yet, you cannot end similar wars through cornering its parties or through moral embarrassment. It helps. But it is not enough. There must be incentives and prices to pay. And if we all agree that the Syrian crisis has never been exclusively Syrian, then it should be emphasized that failure to connect a political deal in Syria to the regional geopolitical competition will end up with worsening both.
We should emphasize here that this line of thinking, through which we drew the picture above, is analytical in essence. No hard information was obtained in this short interval of time since Assad’s Moscow visit that can tip one side of the speculation. It is just based on understanding the dynamics of the situation in its general direction.
No one wants to complicate the diplomatic mission in Syria. In the contrary. And the example of separating the Iran nuclear deal from all other issues during the negotiations between the P5+1 and Tehran would not help here. The nuclear program was, at least in part, a result of regional competition. But the Syrian crisis is this regional competition. It is its bloodiest manifestation.
There will be nothing less than the monumental effort done to get the nuclear deal that a Syrian political solution will take. Words are free. Lots of them can be prepared and groomed and put on the table. Yet, at the end of the day what will count is deeds.
Now, what are the chances of success of this new count down (this time in Russian)?
Many elements will participate in writing a clear answer to this difficult question.
1) The Syrian Opposition:
Syria’s armed opposition will certainly split along the lines of accepting or refusing a political deal. It should be clear upfront that there is a carrot and there is a stick. The carrot is that the main blocks of the opposition will be almost autonomous in their areas provided that they clear it of ISIL (with regional and international help) and that they respect the basic human rights rules particularly in the case of minorities. We outlined a general concept about what should be done in our article printed almost four weeks ago: “How to Reach a Transitional Truce in Syria”.
Relations between the different regions and the central government should avoid, at least in the beginning, infringement on entrenched interests in these regions. However, a commitment to prevent and fight terrorism in all its forms- propaganda, education, incitement, training, and operations should be obtained and verifiable mechanisms for implementation should be approved by all.
The idea is to move things in a way that increases the distance between the main opposition blocks and the terrorist groups. Aware of this, practical measures should be lined in this direction and not only in the direction of a truce or a political deal. Al Raqqa is peaceful. It is not abstract peace that should be required. It is a specific peace that is sustainable and that will pave the road to rebuild Syria and put it back together.
Those who will refuse the Arab-Turkish-Russian-American deal that may emerge from the current round of efforts must be informed upfront of the consequences of their rejection. They will be putting themselves in the same camp of ISIL and will be dealt with as such.
The main point, however, which should be raised at this delicate moment of talks is that Assad and his allies are intensifying their offensive particularly around Aleppo, Hama and Damascus and that this intensification is not helpful. We should look at that in the following way: Putin does not have the muscles for a long campaign-Assad is desperately trying to improve his positions with the help of the Iranians and the Russians-Shortly, as Moscow hopes, the parties will be gathering around the negotiating table. But how about a scenario in which the parties do not even show up?
In this particular crisis, Assad offensive should not be seen as a usual exercise in improving the negotiating terms. This offensive may end up blocking the road to any negotiating table. Take one example: While Assad was in Moscow, Jabhat Al Nusra, the Islamic Union for the Soldiers of Al Sham and Ahrar Al Sham announced the formation of a unified Operation Room. The Room was announced as a nucleus for a unified army in the north and was explained as a response to the Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria.
What we are trying to say here is that the theory that you should intensify the military pressure before you head to the negotiating table would not work in this particular case. There are fighters who will never go to this table whatever happens. This block of Jihadists have all the interest now in pulling everyone to their side as soon as they manages to do. We are talking about a fragmented opposition with different ideological orientations.
Then again, what if the counter offensive hits a wall? We understand that the Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces planned to carry this offensive from now until January-February, then there are the sand storms season until spring, then the talks in spring or early summer. But this may end up to be wishful thinking. The opposition may decide to carry on and “test” the balance of power for a longer duration.
And in this point lies the main weakness of the Putin-Assad plan. They cannot force their adversaries to the negotiating table.
Yet, the expected stand of the opposition will be also shaped by the Arab-Turkish position.
2) The Arab Position:
It has become clear to all that in order to achieve a favorable zero-sum result, it will take a long time and substantial resources. At the end, nothing will be left of Syria. It would resemble the big fish of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.
Yet, the main issue here is the degree to which Iran will preserve its presence in the west of Syria. While it is possible to provide a face saving covers to all players, it will remain important to talk clearly about the content of any deal in its relation to the geopolitical confrontation brewing in the Middle East.
A deal in Syria must be a first step in reaching a regional modus vivendi. This will be the most important step in fighting terrorism. Yet, it looks too ambitious to discuss now. In spite of that, the main objective must be reaching such a deal at one point down the road. A Syrian deal will be substantial in this regard, but it would not be sufficient. If not backed by a comprehensive effort to reach a regional deal, it would remain unstable and exposed to regional dynamics. Moscow and Washington can curb excesses in both sides and exert pressure to reach a regional understanding. The process of dialogue will be met with rejectionists in both sides. However, it must start from a modest platform to a higher level. In this sense, it should be a long term process.
Iran should be told by all relevant international players that its aggressive regional policy will bring negative consequences to itself and others in the region. No one is too blind or naïve to believe its soft deceptive public statements.
It is amazing to see President Putin condemning the so-called Arab Spring while Tehran was one of the first countries to hail it as a sign of the spread of its revolutionary experience. The two allies should tell us who to believe. Tehran should understand that shaking stability in the region will help those who are determined to attack Shias emerge.
But preaching does not always work. What is urgently and badly needed is a new frame work for security in the Gulf, all the while preserving strong Western guarantees to its Arab countries and enhancing those guarantees. We profoundly appreciate recent circulating proposals to introduce a Gulf Security Forum that includes all P5+EU, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and GCC states. While such a forum would be unable to stop asymmetric subversive activities, it may provide an important channel to address some other security concerns which could otherwise develop dangerously.
The method of presentation (in the case of a deal regarding Syria) is important in determining its chances of success. It is not that any side has defeated the other. It is that both sides care about the Syrian people. It is to save Syria, or what is left of it.
The conclusion is that there is a chance that the Putin plan would work. Yet, in realistic terms, it is way more likely that it would not. It will take very heavy lifting to narrow the gap between the two possibilities.