Can Russia end the war in Syria? President Vladimir Putin’s government recently announced that it’s going to try, but the chances of success for this much-discussed Russian initiative seem slim at best—because Moscow has called a peace meeting with only one of the warring parties in attendance.
Since the failure of the so-called Geneva II peace conference that was held with joint U.S.-Russian backing in January and February last year, there have been no political initiatives to fill the void. Instead, the war has continued to tear Syria apart and undermine stability across the Middle East. In 2014, Iraq nearly collapsed when the ultra-extremist jihadi group known as the Islamic State seized Mosul, and the conflict was further internationalized by a U.S.-led military intervention against jihadists in Iraq and Syria. All the while a low-level sectarian civil war took root in northeast Lebanon, refugees continued to flow out of Syria, and a humanitarian crisis of truly catastrophic proportions continued to fester.
The Russian Initiative
With U.S. diplomacy largely passive on Syria since the failure of the Geneva II talks—whether out of design or despair—Russia has now stepped onto the scene with its own proposal for peace talks in Moscow.
In November, the Russian foreign ministry declared that it was looking at the possibility of convening a meeting between President Bashar al-Assad’s representatives and the Syrian opposition, including “a broad spectrum of all the groups including foreign and domestic groups.” In December, Putin’s point man on Syria affairs, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, held a series of meetings with both Assad and various opposition groups. By Christmas, the Russian foreign ministry announced that informal talks would be held in Moscow in late January. A couple of weeks later, formal invitations were finally sent out for a meeting on January 26–29. The first two days are scheduled to focus on discussions among the opposition groups, with the grand finale on January 29 being a meeting between the two delegations: the opposition and the government.
The Russians have made it clear that they do not propose new goals for a political process. Instead, the Moscow meeting is simply intended to inaugurate a new round of “Syrian-Syrian” dialogue without a preset agenda, albeit based on the UN-sponsored June 30, 2012, Geneva Communiqué—the same document that was at the heart of Geneva II.
Unpacking the Russian Plan
Interpretations of this sudden move, after three years of essentially reactive Russian diplomacy, differ widely. Some analysts see the initiative as an opportunistic move without much political content, intended to show Russian leadership on Syria and to reframe the politics of the conflict to Russia’s liking—if it creates divisions among opposition groups and pro-rebel governments, so much the better for Moscow.
Here on Syria in Crisis, Carnegie’s Joseph Bahout has argued that Russia is seeking to step into the void left by the collapse of Geneva II and the ensuing U.S. reticence. In Bahout’s view, the Russian move is timed to fit the new UN plans for a local ceasefire in the Aleppo area, recently presented by the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. Having already experimented with local ceasefires, notably in Homs, the Syrian government is eager to turn any Aleppine ceasefire deal in its favor. Bahout argues that the Russian initiative seems designed to secure Assad’s rule politically at a time when UN-brokered local ceasefires will reduce the military threat against his regime.
A Defensive Move?
Other analysts see the call for new negotiations as a reactive or even defensive move, in a situation where both Putin and Assad are starting to feel that they’re at risk of squandering the gains of 2013 and 2014.
The U.S-led aerial campaign against the Islamic State is a long-term project that is likely to keep the United States involved in Syria for years. It seems ripe for “mission creep,” or a gradual shift of the original campaign’s objectives. Fearing that Barack Obama, or his successor as U.S. president, will decide to expand the list of targets to include Syrian regime forces, Putin may have opted for Russian-led peace talks as a preemptive diplomatic strike. Some movement on the political front could help appease the Americans and—in a Russian best-case scenario—perhaps even pave the way for a future rapprochement between Damascus and Washington, as they jointly turn their guns on the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Russia is suffering from increasingly severe economic problems, caused by sliding global oil prices and its deep entanglement in the Ukraine crisis—issues that must surely rank higher on any Russian list of strategic threats than the situation in Syria. The Syrian army has nearly encircled Aleppo and the opposition seems beyond repair, but at the same time, Assad lacks the manpower to proceed much further and his regime is slowly being bled by a crippling infrastructural and economic crisis. With his Syrian ally unable to secure a military victory even at current levels of support, Putin may simply have decided that it’s time to cash his chips while he’s still ahead.
Restoring Russian Centrality?
In the London-based but Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat, the veteran Syria correspondent Ibrahim al-Hamidi argues that Russia fears losing influence over the Syrian pro-regime camp to Assad’s other main ally, Iran.
With Syria now in a permanent state of war, the Assad regime has shed entire segments of its former social base and seems to be evolving away from the centralized bureaucratic state of the pre-2011 era. As a consequence of these developments, Tehran’s direct connections with pro-Assad militias, sectarian groups, Iran-linked businessmen, and military commanders on the field have begun to undercut Moscow’s top-down influence through the central government, the public sector, and the regular armed forces. While Iran is an indispensable ally for Russia in the struggle to save Assad, Tehran is also playing its own game in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, and it cannot be counted on to have Moscow’s best interests in mind.
This means that Russia stands to lose if focus moves too far away from Damascus toward lower-level actors, which would be a likely side effect of de Mistura’s local-ceasefire approach. This may be one reason behind the Kremlin’s attempt to reinvigorate the concept of top-level talks involving the Syrian central government, which has always been Moscow’s traditional interlocutor.
Wait and See
Whatever the ulterior motives behind the Russian gambit, for Moscow to make room for Syrian-Syrian dialogue is an entirely laudable proposition. If no one else does it, why shouldn’t Russia?
But there is of course no escaping the international context. Russia is a key ally of Assad and is viewed as an enemy state by millions of Syrians. And of course, the Kremlin’s decision to assume sole responsibility for the process, without inviting other actors to share the bill, does suggest a desire to shape its outcome—if not now, then at a later stage. The unilateral nature of the Russian initiative has therefore discredited the talks in rebel eyes even before they begin, and it has served to invite obstruction from anyone unwilling to see Russia take the lead in a Syrian peace process.
To offset its weak influence over the opposition and avoid any unnecessary ruffling of feathers, Moscow has tried its best to keep other regional players in the loop and assure them that the talks won’t undermine the internationally-agreed Geneva principles.
To an extent, this seems to have worked. While few states have given any overt support to the Russian initiative, neither has there been much public criticism, whatever may or may not have happened behind the scenes. The United States has kept a low profile and allowed the necessary space for Russian diplomacy, with a State Department spokesperson telling the press on January 12 that “we’re not involved in the planning here, but we believe that any kind of efforts that can get us closer to a real political solution [...] would be helpful. We’ll see what comes out of this.” The UN’s de Mistura has also signaled interest in the plan, promising to either go himself or send a representative to the Moscow meeting. And he previously told al-Hayat’s Hamidi that if the Russian initiative is “presented in a proper fashion and supported by all parties, this initiative will complete my efforts, since we need a new initiative for political dialogue.”
It Takes Two To Tango
But that has not been enough. For all its military muscle and capacity for diplomatic disruption, the Kremlin has now been shown to lack the Middle Eastern influence necessary to bring all relevant players in Syria to the negotiating table.
The Assad government has given the talks a lukewarm thumbs-up, but all opposition factions of any consequence have opted to stay away. Getting the armed Sunni Islamists who hold sway on the ground to sit down with Assad’s ministers on Moscow’s urging was always an unlikely idea, but Russia’s hope to at least assemble a few dozen well-known political dissidents have also floundered.
One after the other, even the most moderate and secular-minded opposition figures have announced that they will boycott the talks. Despite Russia’s insistence that the talks would be broad-based, it now appears that the January meetings will be attended by—at best—a skeletal delegation of elderly Russia-friendly leftists and Assad-linked pseudo-dissidents.
Talks between Assad’s government and an opposition delegation made up of such figures would not be the desired “Syrian-Syrian” dialogue; indeed, it would be better characterized as “regime-regime.” And while calling for these talks may have served Russian interests in a number of other ways, merely going through the motions of a peace process isn’t going to help solve the conflict. Russia must realize that it cannot fix Syria on its own—no one can.