Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria has achieved many objectives. The Bashar al-Assad regime, which was losing territory, has become more stable and even regained the important arterial city of Aleppo. Diplomatic talks began in Geneva on the cessation of hostilities and a transition mechanism, although these have run into trouble after a decision to temporarily withdraw by the main Syrian opposition, alleging regime violation of the ceasefire. The Russian bombing no doubt hurt the anti-Assad groups much more than the Islamic State. But Russia has, once again, inserted itself in the region as an important player. Putin made one gesture: He didn’t insist on including the Kurdish group in the talks, thus offering a concession the Americans could claim as a sop to Turkey. Evidently, Russians and Americans are working in close coordination in West Asia.
Earlier, Putin had helped US President Barack Obama on the alleged use of chemical weapons (CWs) by Damascus; when Putin suggested that the CWs be destroyed, Obama had promptly accepted. Obama, too, must be given credit for acting with prudence. He has wisely decided not to get his country involved in the Middle East mess that has cost it dearly.
Obama was pushed into the regime change chorus under pressure from important regional allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Left to himself, Obama might not have so openly aligned himself with the regime change demand. There’s, however, one other regional power that would welcome regime change in Damascus. Israel has learned to live with the Assads for three decades or more. Syria poses no threat to it. Nonetheless, Israel is keen to see the back of Assad. Iran, Israel says, is an existential threat. Iran and Syria have a 35-year strategic partnership. Syria provides the indispensable link for Iran to funnel aid to Hezbollah. Israel would like nothing better than to see Assad replaced.
But the situation became complex as the regime in Damascus would, in all likelihood, be replaced by extremist Salafist groups like the IS or al-Nusra front. The cure would be worse than the disease. Obama seems to have persuaded most regional allies that regime change must wait. The one exception is Turkey, frightened at the growing stature of the Kurdish militants. Thus, the congruence of interests among the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional Sunni states, in demanding a regime change, has lost its salience.
Similarly, the congruence of interests on the other side is also not solid. Putin has wisely maintained that Syria’s future must be determined by its people. If, in a free and fair election, Assad is replaced, Russia will have no problem. However, Russia would hate to see Assad lose power since a successor regime might deny Russia privileges it enjoys in Syria’s territory and territorial waters. For Iran, Assad’s departure would be a disaster. An influential Iranian official said so to this writer and added Iran will do whatever it takes to save Assad.
Of late, Assad appears to have consciously adopted a more moderate, even statesmanlike attitude, judging by his statement that the transition government must include elements of opposition as well as independents. He’s even prepared to countenance an early presidential election. Thus far, he had always referred to the opposition as terrorists. Is he following Russian advice?
The UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, deserves credit for his patient diplomacy for bringing the parties to the conference table in Geneva. If he manages to continue with the process and to eventually cobble together a transitional government, it would almost be a miracle.
Will the Geneva talks, if continued, succeed? If success is to be measured in terms of ushering in a sustained period of peace, that will not happen. The IS and al-Nusra front are not participants at Geneva, and rightly so. These groups will not recognise agreements reached by others. Perhaps the Americans and Russians are counting on their combined and coordinated attacks on the IS to drive it out of Raqqa. On the other hand, the parties at Geneva might utilise the pause to regroup and prepare for a deadlier war.
One must also not underestimate Turkey’s preoccupation with the Kurds, who have already formed a “federal territory” in northern Syria. Turkey will not accept any arrangement conferring legitimacy on Assad. Ankara is playing for high stakes in Syria. The prospects, at best, are for a pause in fighting for some time, but a continuation of the civil conflict for a long time.
The writer, a former diplomat, was special envoy to the Middle East