After negotiations in Geneva earlier this year failed to bring about a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria, there are now signs that Russia may be launching a new round of peace talks that will take place in Moscow.
Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front carry their weapons as they move towards their positions near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, Nov. 25, 2014. Photo: Reuters
In the absence of a clear Syria strategy in the White House, Russia is making attempts to become a major peacemaker in the Middle East by secretly negotiating a new round of talks between Assad and the Syrian opposition. The conflict that started in 2011 had largely centered on the fight between the fragmented opposition and President Assad, but that changed this year, when the so-called Islamic State took center stage. ISIS (or ISIL, as it is also commonly known), controls swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, and now poses a threat to the existence of both the Syrian government and what remains of the opposition.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a high-level delegation from Syria headed by Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallem in Moscow. Official reports claim that the two discussed ways to bolster bilateral ties, but the fact that the President himself and not the Foreign Minister was present at the meeting sends strong signals about the significance of Muallem’s visit to Russia. Sources in Syria and Moscow claim that Muallem’s visit was a final push to relaunch the Syrian peace talks that failed in Geneva in January this year.
Russia has been ramping up efforts to bring peace to Syria
In the last two months, Russia has stepped up efforts to convince stakeholders inside Syria and outside to engage in another round of talks along the lines of the Geneva II conference. Having Iran as its staunchest ally on Syria, Moscow has been negotiating with two other regional powers lately – Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In October, the Presidents of Russia and Turkey had a phone conversation in which Putin apparently tried to persuade Erdogan that between the two evils, Assad and ISIS, the latter is a bigger threat for Turkey and the region in general. On Dec. 1, Putin made a state visit to Ankara, as a result of which Erdogan confirmed that the two had “reached a certain agreement on [the] resolution of the Syrian conflict” and are prepared to work together to prevent the Islamic State from gaining strength. On Nov. 21, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met with Saud Al Faisal Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister in Moscow, where the two agreed that Russia could hold the Geneva III conference.
Most importantly, however, Moscow has held a string of meetings with the Assad government and the fragmented opposition, both in Russia and Syria. Russian Deputy Ilyas Umakharov, who traveled to Damascus with an official visit on Nov. 23, confirmed Bashar Al Assad’s readiness to relaunch the Syrian reconciliation process.
“At a meeting with us, Syrian President Bashar Assad said the government was ready for a dialogue. We felt his confidence in his words and his commitment to begin a peaceful post-war development of the country as soon as possible,” Umakharov was quoted as saying by the Russian media.
Negotiating with the Syrian opposition has been a much more daunting task. Vladimir Putin’s Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov held talks with Qadri Jamil, leader of the Syria’s Popular Front for Changes and Liberation, last week in Moscow. At the meeting Jamil and Bogdanov agreed that the time has come to launch an inclusive inter-Syrian negotiation process.
But the most significant of Moscow’s diplomatic attempts came on Nov. 8, around the time when Lavrov and Kerry met in Beijing to discuss Syria and Iran. Former Head of the Syrian National Coalition Muath Al Khatib and three current members of the opposition government traveled to Moscow at the invitation of Russia for talks with a number of senior Russian officials, including the Foreign Minister and Vladimir Putin’s envoy for the Middle East.
According to Al Khatib, the meeting centered on finding a political solution to the crisis and the mechanisms to secure the transfer of power. One interesting detail about Al Khatib’s comments is his remark that the visit to Russia should serve as a catalyst for further meetings in Moscow.
Al Khatib’s appearance in Moscow may be a sign of Moscow’s active attempts to bring the opposition and the government together at the negotiating table. Russia’s support for Assad is antagonizing the opposition and the visit is significant in that some members of Syria’s previously adamant opposition are now ready to negotiate with Moscow and Damascus. Russia’s expectation is that, even after his resignation from the National Coalition’s presidency, Muath Al Khatib remains an influential person and will be able to exert his influence in Syria.
“Moscow I” Conference
Earlier in November, Lebanese paper Al Akhbar published a report according to which Moscow has teamed up with Cairo to try and organize a conference along the lines of the process formerly known as Geneva II, but this time in Moscow. Egypt, Russia’s new regional ally, is likely to be playing the role of a mediator between Moscow and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to try and convince the latter to endorse the conference.
The agenda of the talks would be to advance political dialogue between the Assad government and the opposition, both in exile and still in the country. Russia’s initiative would likely see two of its earlier proposals for Geneva conferences on Syria merged. They include setting up a transitional government that includes representatives of all opposition parties and the government with Al Assad remaining in charge of the army and security services followed by a presidential election in which Al Assad can run.
According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Alexander Lukashevich, the idea to bring the Syrian government and the opposition for talks in Moscow has been presented by Russia on several occasions.
Staffan de Mistura, UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, is likely to be actively involved in this process. In late October, de Mistura visited Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, where the parties reportedly reiterated the need for all-encompassing talks for Syria. At the time of Muath Al Khatib’s visit to Moscow, de Mistura traveled to Damascus where he met with Syrian Foreign Minister Waled Al Muallem and later to Cairo. De Mistura could be playing a key role in the coordination of efforts to make the conference happen as his recent trips to Moscow, Damascus and Cairo suggest.
Who will be the key players in a Moscow peace conference?
If everything goes according to Moscow’s plan and the conference happens, the Syrian government will be represented by Foreign Minister Waled Al Muallem at the talks. To deliver on the promise of comprehensive opposition participation, Moscow may invite former Head of the National Council Muath Al Khatib who, according to Moscow, may represent Syria’s entire non-resident opposition. Also present may be Qadri Jamil, the Head of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, the only opposition party in the Syrian parliament and Salih Muslim, Co-Chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing the Kurds.
Although Al Khatib no longer leads the main opposition in exile, he is a respected figure seen by diplomats as someone who could play part in a future political solution for Syria. While in Moscow, Al Khatib said he is ready to sit alongside the regime for talks if it is necessary for a lasting solution, but conditioned his participation on the release of 160,000 prisoners and the renewal of passports for Syrian exiles.
In the Russia-initiated talks, the Syrian government will likely have an upper hand, even more so because of the Free Syrian Army’s huge territorial losses to ISIS this year. FSA’s significance has dramatically diminished and the Western-backed National Coalition is believed to have significantly weakened as well. The National Coalition is now in control of only 2 percent of the territory in Syria, and there are more and more calls for it to reconcile with the Assad regime to prevent ISIS from grabbing the rest of this land.
Barack Obama is increasingly running out of options on Syria. His recent decision to arm and train the moderate opposition is unlikely to have effect on the ground in the next year or two. Russia is confident that U.S. interests in the Middle East are being jeopardized by the threats that the Syrian crisis poses to five neighboring countries (Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel). Moscow believes that it has all the cards in its hands and a new peace conference played by Russian rules is the option that the U.S. may be forced to accept.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.