With the Syrian conflict entering its fifth year and the Geneva format for peace talks delivering almost zero results, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has invited Syrian opposition leaders and the Syrian government to discuss the issues in Moscow.
A soldier of the Syrian government army at the Krak des Chevaliers castle in Syria. The fortress was liberated by Syrian government forces in March 2014, and Islamic militants were expelled, after occupying it for two and a half years. Photo: RIA Novosti
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, which has since evolved into today’s full-scale civil war, Russia has been playing an important role in trying to use diplomacy as the primary tool for resolving the conflict. The most recent international attempt to settle the conflict, the Geneva II Conference on Syria, did not achieve any serious results. Now, a year after Geneva II, Moscow is hosting peace talks on Syria that will start on Jan. 26 and are expected to last four days.
Technically, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a platform for talks between various opposition groups and the Syrian government in the presence of a moderator who represents Russian civil society groups and is not affiliated with the government or the foreign ministry. This move is supposedly aimed at making the talks more constructive and convenient for the participants.
The moderator of the talks is going to be Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, a well-known Middle East expert, and the author of the Russia Direct Brief "Russia's Strategy in the Middle East." What makes Dr. Naumkin the most suitable candidate to moderate the talks is that he is an academic who speaks Arabic and is well known among the participants of the conference, who have already met him before on the sidelines of different meetings.
During the press conference which Dr. Naumkin gave ahead of the talks, he outlined the main principles of the Moscow meeting: no preconditions, free dialogue, no prearranged agenda, only Syrians participating, and no international pressure.
However, there is a possibility that Staffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary General’s representative for Syria, or his deputy, might join the talks as observers should they meet with approval by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
The talks are going to be closed to the public and are planned to be held in two stages. In the first stage – Jan. 26-27 – representatives of the Syrian opposition and civil society groups will meet with each other. In the second – Jan. 28-29 – the opposition will meet representatives of the Syrian government.
Although it is a new initiative and totally a new format, the new Moscow talks are not meant to be a replacement of the Geneva format, highlighted Dr. Naumkin. As he explained further: “That would be great if the Moscow talks will help to resume the Geneva process.” At the same time, he stressed that “no one expects an agreement to be signed” and that the main idea of the talks is “to make different personalities discuss the basis of dialogue when it starts.”
The Russian President’s Special Envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, said on Jan. 14 that Moscow has sent nearly thirty invitations to the representatives of Syrian opposition groups to take part in the Moscow Conference. Dr. Naumkin during the Jan. 20 press conference said that the number of opposition figures who will arrive to Moscow has already exceeded that target.
Interestingly, the invitations were sent to opposition figures on an individual basis – not to the opposition groups or factions – in an attempt to avoid unnecessary rivalry between opposition groups. In that regard, Naumkin underlined that they tried to invite representatives of all opposition groups with the exception of extremists. He also pointed out that representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood will be present at the meeting.
One of the biggest hopes that organizers hold is that the Moscow talks are not going to turn into the “war of declarations” and mutual accusations as it was the case during the Geneva I and II conferences.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry officially welcomed the talks in Moscow; however, representatives of the Washington-backed Syrian National Coalition as well as prominent opposition figure Mouaz Al Khatib have refused to take part in the conference. The main reason for their refusal is that the meeting does not envision the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which apparently, contradicts one of the main principles of the Moscow talks – no preconditions.
Dr. Naumkin commented on this development, “If you are a Syrian patriot why would you not want to use even a tiny possibility to come and talk... even if you do not agree with Russia's position?"
Hypothetically, the Moscow talks might bring some useful results and help to break the impasse of the already four-year long conflict. The approach in some European capitals towards Syria has started to change, given the current scale of the civil war in Syria. The rising threat from the Islamic State, which comes in the form of European jihadists coming back home and stirring up unrest, has made Europe rethink its policy towards the war in Syria and enhance their coordination with the Syrian army against the Islamic State. Recent terror attacks in France further shifted European anti-terror policy.
Also, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his annual press conference noticed that American policy on Syria has also started to shift, which was highlighted in an article in the New York Times. He pointed out that, in the U.S. President’s State of the Union speech, fighting against the Islamic State was described as a priority compared to all other goals related to Syria, which is a good sign that understanding of the issue is growing.
However, the Russian moderator of the upcoming Syria peace talks has downplayed expectations about the outcomes of the meeting. Asked about what would make the talks a success, he said: “If the participants will sit down and discuss matters together for four days rather than fight over the table – that would be great. And the second – if this process will get a continuation.”
Dr. Alexei Pilko, the director of the Eurasian Communication Center and a senior researcher in the History department of Moscow State University, characterizes the upcoming meeting as “only the first step in the long way towards dialogue between parties of the Syrian civil war.” He also argues that, “This is a move in a right direction, although we should not expect immediate results… it is important that that all parties of the conflict started to talk.”
Alexander Sotnichenko, professor at St. Petersburg State University, expects Syrian peace talks in Moscow to host a large number of opposition representatives. However, what is mostly important is “if representatives of National Coalition that previously refused to have any negotiations with Assad regime will be present at the conference, that would be a great breakthrough.”
He also argues that, “If representatives of the National Coalition and other opposition groups and the Syrian government will be able to set up a meaningful communication in Moscow, then this platform will gain a meaningful legitimacy; additionally, this can seriously contribute to the revitalization of the political dialogue between Moscow and regional countries supporting the Syrian opposition: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”
On Jan. 26, the first stage of the talks will start. Representatives of different Syrian opposition groups will start the talks and get prepared to meet representatives of the Syrian regime on Jan. 28. Reportedly, the Syrian government delegation consists of six members led by the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari; it also has become known that several representatives of the National Coalition will be present at the talks in a personal capacity. Thus, in theory, Moscow talks have quite a lot of potential to set up a meaningful dialogue between the Syrian opposition groups and the regime.