Earlier this week, Khaled Khoja, the new head of the Syria opposition in exile, rejected a Russian proposal to attend talks in Moscow to end the Syrian conflict. Khoja was right to doubt Russian intentions, but officials in Moscow are probably thinking in very different terms.
There has been confusion over precisely what Moscow wants for Syria. We know the Russians seek to hold meetings in Moscow with members of the Syrian regime and opposition groups, who presumably, when the time is right, would then talk with each other.
Some media outlets, including the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar, have suggested the format will be similar to what was discussed prior to the Geneva conference a year ago: the formation of a transitional government with executive powers that would pave the way to a new constitution and a presidential election. Al-Akhbar affirmed that during this period President Bashar Assad would retain control over the army and security apparatus.
However, observers have remarked that Russia is actually moving away from the Geneva format on Syria. The idea of a transitional government, no matter how logical it may seem given Syria’s realities, implicitly suggests a move away from Assad. Reportedly, this has not been well received by Iran and Hezbollah. The new Russian initiative may be an effort to hit two birds with one stone: to address Iranian displeasure and shape a diplomatic initiative that adapts to the new situation in Syria, where the focus lately has been on defeating ISIS.
From the perspective of the opposition in exile, this represents a potential minefield. Given the exiles’ limited influence inside Syria, any effort to integrate them into peace negotiations must be viewed with considerable suspicion. Making Khoja and his comrades part of a process could fragment Assad’s enemies further and heighten discord within the already largely discredited exiled opposition. This would ultimately ensure that Assad is recognized internationally as the only game in town.
Given international fears of the jihadi groups in Syria, such an objective seems reachable. The United States has no real policy when it comes to Syria, despite President Barack Obama’s promises to train and arm “moderate” rebel units. And last October Obama wrote Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to underline that both Iran and the U.S. had parallel interests in fighting ISIS, and to reassure him that coalition airstrikes would not target Assad’s forces.
As the Russians have watched American incoherence and gauged the depth of regional rivalries over Syria, not least the clashing agendas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, they have seen an opportunity. At the same time the United Nations has appointed an envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who has limited his ambitions for a solution, preferring to start with efforts to freeze the conflict in certain locations before building on this, without addressing the more contentious issue of Assad’s fate.
The Russians realize there is fatigue in the Middle East and internationally with the seemingly intractable Syrian conflict. Assad knows what he is doing when his forces engage in the massive displacement of populations. As is its way, the Syrian regime has created a regional humanitarian problem so enormous that governments no longer are insisting on his exit, so keen are they to bring an end to the Syrian nightmare. Moscow will exploit this mood to impose its diplomatic preferences.
Khoja’s rejection of the Russian proposal was not surprising. But circumstances will continue to change, and the weaker the so-called moderates become, the more likely they may be to embrace a diplomatic initiative to save themselves. And once that happens, the Russians would be in a better position to bring the exiled opposition, along with the so-called internal opposition, together with the regime in a resolution project, giving Assad new legitimacy. Those opposing such moves could then be denounced as “extremists” in league with the jihadis.
The more pertinent matter is how long the regime can last. While we appear to be in a military stalemate, Assad’s forces have been seriously depleted, obliging them to forcibly conscript young men. Even in the Alawite community the enthusiasm for fighting on behalf of Assad is next to nil. The Syrian army is not winning decisive engagements, and it appears that even its efforts to surround rebels in Aleppo have been unsuccessful.
The Russians must sense that their diplomacy is not likely to make much headway in the near term. But that’s not their aim. By putting it into circulation now, they have shifted attention away from the Geneva format, which the Syrian regime doesn’t like and which the Russians were unwilling to impose on Assad when the Geneva conference was held almost a year ago.
The Russians are also positioning themselves as prime interlocutors on Syria, and have been careful to make it appear that they are working in parallel with de Mistura. In that way, as circumstances change and the international community decides to move resolutely toward a peace plan for Syria, the Russians will be better placed to put their favored plan forward, perhaps in coordination with the U.N.
The Russians apparently understand something the Obama administration doesn’t: that for any anti-ISIS campaign to be successful, the Syrian conflict must be brought to an end. The Russians are seeking to use this logic to keep the regime in place, knowing that efforts to remove it, rapidly or slowly, will probably be opposed by Iran. With America unconcerned, the Russians have an opening, even if their plan is delayed weeks, months or years. What’s important is that it become the only plan on the table.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.