On the last day of February after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that Russia would create a new international group including countries involved in the Syrian conflict, the Syrian leadership and “perhaps” the opposition.
The group’s mission would be to establish “stability after eliminating all terrorist hotbeds” in Syria, Putin said. He added that under the plan all foreign fighters must withdraw from Syria, state institutions must be restored and the integrity of Syrian territory maintained.
The Syrian opposition did not comment on the Russian declaration, since it had not been presented to opposition members. The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad also denied any knowledge of the plan.
Syrian representative to the UN Iyad Al-Jaafari said Moscow “has not discussed [the new international group] with Damascus” and added that once both sides begin talking “they will reach a balanced understanding due to their excellent relations.”
“Russia’s view is balanced and focuses on an effective role for the Syrian government,” Al-Jaafari said, adding that Israel had no place in the new group.
However, after Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow a senior Israeli official said that Russia and Israel would form a working group along with other countries to study the removal of foreign forces from Syria.
The official did not clarify if this group would be the nucleus of the new international group announced by Putin.
Analysts believe that Moscow has reached an agreement with Tel Aviv about the proposed group and that Israel is in charge of announcing its core. This will send an indirect message to Russia’s partners in Syria, Turkey and Iran, that it will not stop coordinating with Tel Aviv while looking for solutions to the Syrian crisis.
The message to Washington is that Russia can impact Israel’s position on Syria and convince it to accept a strategic partnership with Russia.
In October last year, Putin said that Russia’s efforts had protected Syria’s institutions, contributed to its stability, and liberated 95 per cent of its territory.
He said the next phase would be to implement a political settlement under the supervision of an international mechanism.
However, the new group Putin has now announced does not look promising. While he said that terrorism must be eradicated, it was not clear whether he meant the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Nusra Front, or whether he meant the armed Syrian opposition which according to his rhetoric is a terrorist group irrespective of its ideology and moderate nature.
Putin also requires the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, although he is well aware that he cannot force the US, Iran, Turkey, the Arab countries and various militias to leave, especially due to the conflicts of interest and hostilities among them.
Another reason making the new group difficult to form is that Russia and Iran do not recognise the definition of foreign fighters entering Syria illegally, claiming that they came in response to an official request by the regime. This logic is rejected by the other parties involved in the Syrian conflict.
Putin specified who would be invited to the new group, saying that the most important participants would be the “Syrian leadership”. The opposition “might be invited,” he said, indicating that he has taken a clear position in favour of the regime even before the group has been created. Putin has thus pre-emptively paralysed the group and placed preconditions that will prevent its effective creation.
It seems likely that the US will not agree to the Russian plans for Syria, since it views itself as the main decision-maker in the region. Without Washington’s approval and support for Russia’s plan, it will not see the light.
The UN will also likely refuse to be a follower in a group led by Russia, particularly as Putin wants the new group to be an expansion of the Astana Process which includes Russia, Iran and Turkey and follows Russia’s lead.
The Russian initiative comes at a time when Ankara is negotiating with Washington on creating a safe zone in northern Syria and the US administration is thinking about handing over the affairs of northeastern Syria to the Europeans.
While the Al-Assad regime claims it has succeeded in defeating plots to divide up Syria, in reality it controls little territory. Kurdish militias control part of the north of the country and Iranian militias control part of the southeast.
The US decision to partially withdraw from Syria has thrown Russia off balance, and it is now concerned that it will lose control and that its disputes with its Astana Process co-sponsors will deepen.
The goals of Moscow, Ankara and Tehran are divergent, and Washington’s decision to withdraw its troops disrupted the balance of the conflict.
There is a need for a quick balance check among the three, although there is no clear common ground among them. Putin believes this can be achieved through an international group in which Russia will be the strongest member.
Russia’s military victory in Syria has not been translated into political victory on the ground, and doubts remain about the success of the Astana Process that Russia is trying to impose on Syria and regional and international parties.
Moscow is in a hurry and wants to hold onto most of the cards in Syria without conceding many to others, whether the US, the West, Turkey or the Syrian opposition.
It is clear that this formula will fail, even as Russia is trying to maintain a grip on the crisis rather than reach a clear and stable peace in Syria.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Putin’s plan for Syria