In recent months, there has been a flurry of diplomatic movement in the Syrian conflict, but unlike previous years, the United States is strangely absent. Instead, Russia and Iran, the two main allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, are trying to seize the initiative and pave the way for a new political deal.

Some have interpreted this as a defensive or opportunistic move, noting that both Russia and Iran are facing new economic constraints and may have been enticed to modify their views by the region’s rapidly changing political scene. Oil prices are plunging, and there are growing signs of the Assad regime’s fragility, even as the international community has refocused its attention on the rise of the Islamic State, the extremist al-Qaeda splinter organization in Syria and Iraq. Together, these factors may—or so the view goes—have led Moscow and Tehran to start thinking about an alternative to Assad. But is this a correct reading of the situation?

The Russian Initiative

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has recently gone on several trips to Damascus and the region, each time through Beirut, to speak to the Assad regime as well as to opposition figures inside and outside of Syria. Two Syrian delegations, from opposite political camps, have also visited Moscow.

Joseph Bahout
Joseph Bahout was a nonresident fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. His research focuses on political developments in Lebanon and Syria, regional spillover from the Syrian crisis, and identity politics across the region.
More >

In mid-November, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem became the first Syrian official to personally meet Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who reiterated his support for the Assad regime. In a press conference following the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the current format for Syria’s peace talks, based on the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012, and the Geneva II peace talks of early 2014, has become outdated. The Geneva process had called for the “establishment of a transitional governing body” with “full executive powers,” indicating some form of transition away from the current regime. It had gained broad international endorsement and, at the time, the support of both Russia and the United States. But now Lavrov suggested that this framework should be replaced by Moscow’s own initiative to solve the conflict through intra-Syrian dialogue.

After Moallem, Moscow received another delegation, this time consisting of a group of moderate dissidents. The delegation was headed by Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a Sunni preacher from Damascus who is the former president of the opposition in exile’s National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and well known for his attempts to open a dialogue with the regime. Following his Russian tour, Khatib came under attack from more hardline opposition figures and felt compelled to justify his move through a lengthy public note published on his Facebook page. He called for a realistic strategy of negotiations and advised his compatriots to give the Russian proposals a chance, even at the cost of seeing Assad stay for a time.

As portrayed by both the Moscow and the Damascus governments, this new initiative will not be based on any prior framework, be it UN resolutions or the Geneva Communiqué. Rather, it will be a new and strictly “Syrian-Syrian” format with no external pressure or meddling, although this disregards the fact that the entire process originated in Moscow.

A Russian Connection to the UN “Freeze” Plan?

Russian diplomacy is not advancing in a vacuum. Recently, the new UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, put forward a proposal that curiously intersects with Moscow’s at many levels. Presented as a “bottom-up” approach to the cessation of hostilities, it aims to “freeze” the conflict through local ceasefire arrangements, beginning in Aleppo. The Mistura initiative contains no clear provisions for political change, sidestepping the thorny question of Assad’s future, and it is presented as a mainly humanitarian effort with little connection to final conflict resolution.

However, reading between the lines in the rare interviews given by the UN envoy, his Aleppo freeze proposal seems designed as a first step of many. By concluding similar agreements in other areas and progressively widening the scope of the ceasefires, the process would ultimately freeze the Syrian war as such, leaving the political dynamics to develop later. But what would that make of Assad? Asked about this issue in a recent al-Hayat interview, the UN envoy gave a very short and strikingly sharp answer: “no comment.”

Suspicions about the true nature of the UN proposal were increased by the fact that Mistura’s plan strongly resembles ideas floated by the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based conflict mediation organization whose researchers have suggested that Assad can stay at the helm in Syria for several more years, while local ceasefires are concluded, guns are turned on the Islamic State, and political reforms implemented gradually. The proposal has been met with strong resistance in opposition circles.

By jumping on board at that exact moment, Russia’s initiative provided the missing political link to Mistura’s “technical” efforts, giving substance to his formal approach and taking back the lead in solving the Syrian issue. Indeed, in his al-Hayat interview, Mistura himself explains that he does not see the Russian proposal as a competitor to his own: “To the contrary, if presented in a suitable fashion and supported by all parties, it could complete my efforts, since we are in need of a new initiative for political dialogue.”

Continued Reliance on Iran

In launching and overseeing its “intra-Syrian dialogue,” Moscow seems keen to also keep Iran in the loop, not least because the Russians realize that the Assad regime will ultimately be more responsive to Tehran’s injunctions than to their own. While the Russian relationship is important, it is not as deep as the Syrian government’s dependence on Iran.

However, the Syrians seem to be in no doubt about their Iranian ally, and in this regard, Moallem’s travel schedule is instructive. After leaving Moscow, he headed to Tehran where both he and the Iranian leadership restated their (paradoxical) conviction that the only solution to Syria’s crisis is dialogue between Syrians without external interference—yet facilitated by Russia and Iran.

In an interview published by the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar in early November, Moallem gave the impression of being supremely confident not only about Iran’s continued commitment to preserving Assad’s rule but even about which political faction will dominate politics in Tehran in the future. In an unprecedented departure from diplomatic etiquette, Moallem spoke bluntly about the internal politics of his ally: “Tampering with this alliance in Iran is unacceptable for Imam [Ali] Khamenei and his sphere. The possible hindrances come from the liberal sphere. Each time this happens, the imam, the parliament, and the Revolutionary Guards settle the matter in Syria’s favor.” Moallem then added, in what came across as a lecturing tone, that he had even been forced to remind his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, that it is the Syrian regime’s own resilience that “allows you to negotiate from a strong position with the West on the nuclear issue.” In Moallem’s reading, then, the Iranian government will continue to support Assad, because it does so not out of kindness but out of self-interest.

Can Russia and Iran Win by Default?

According to the Lebanese journalist Sami Kleib—who is widely considered close to Damascus—both Iran and Russia have now dramatically extended their material aid to Syria’s regime by providing it with a new combined credit line worth $6.4 billion, two-thirds of that sum being offered by Iran. If this turns out to be correct, it is in addition to the enthusiastic support that both countries have given to Mistura’s freeze project and to the Russian proposal for intra-Syrian talks that aims to relegitimize Assad and his regime.

The UN now seems to be drifting away from the conflict resolution format agreed upon in the 2012 Geneva Communiqué and the 2014 Geneva II talks, preferring to focus on freezes and humanitarian dialogues. Meanwhile, the new Moscow-backed initiative appears designed to quietly bypass Washington and make Syria’s peace talks a strictly Russian-Iranian affair.

So far, there has been a deafening diplomatic silence from the White House on this issue. Unless that silence is broken soon, the question is whether the Russian-Iranian plan to preserve Assad in power has not, in fact, incrementally become the only international proposal on the table.

CORRECTION: This post has been amended on January 14, 2015, to reflect the fact that Sami Kleib is no longer married to the director of Bashar al-Assad’s media office, as it previously stated. My apologies for the mistake. –Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis.