Vying for control in Syria

Bassel Oudat , Sunday 6 May 2018

Russia and its allies are competing with the US and its allies to impose a political solution to the Syrian crisis, with there being little middle ground

Syria Strike
Smoke rises from buildings during pro-Syrian government strikes on the ISIS-held Palestinian camp of Yarmouk and the neighboring al-Hajar al-Aswad district, in southern Damascus, on May 1, 2018 (Photo: AFP)

On 26 April, the “core group” of countries having stakes in the Syrian crisis met in Paris to discuss a political solution to the conflict in a meeting attended by the US, France, Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The meeting was held after Western pressure on Russia to approve a political transition in Syria after military strikes by the US, France and Britain against facilities controlled by the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on 14 April in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

The participating countries hoped that Russia would understand that after the military response by the West against the use of the chemical weapons, it must consolidate its efforts with those of the West to support a political process in Syria to resolve the crisis.

The countries want Moscow to put pressure on the Syrian regime to agree to negotiations that result in a political solution based on UN Security Council Resolutions, especially the 2012 Geneva I Declaration.

This was not the first such meeting, since these countries also discussed the political transition in Syria after the Sochi Conference in January published an eight-point white paper on a new constitution for the country.

Russia responded to the Paris meeting by calling for a meeting of its own allies to confirm its own conditions.

The US, in cooperation with France and Britain and Germany to a lesser degree, is trying to reach an international formula that will give new momentum to the stalled political process in Syria.

It is also trying to make Russia take a more constructive position and wants Moscow to use its influence to pressure the regime to accept the Geneva I track and resolutions.

Russia invited its allies to meet in Moscow on 28 April in response, with the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey meeting as guarantors of a ceasefire in Syria.

At the end of the meeting, the ministers confirmed their commitment to boosting three-way coordination based on joint statements.

They also agreed to “facilitate a permanent political solution in Syria” based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Astana Conferences, which they view as “the sole international initiatives that have helped improve conditions in Syria.”

It was decided to hold another round of Astana talks in May.

Russia and Iran believe the outcome of the Astana Conferences have helped combat terrorism, decrease violence and create suitable conditions for a political solution in Syria through the holding of free and transparent elections under UN supervision and based on a constitution approved by the Syrian people.

Meanwhile, France and Germany are trying to introduce a new diplomatic initiative after the tripartite military strikes, though they are also waiting for US blessings and guarantees of minimal Russian approval.

In the interim, they are continuing to address humanitarian issues, including the issue of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, in ways similar to those stated at a UN and EU donor conference in Brussels on 25 April.

Western officials say there will be no “Marshall Plan” in Syria unless there is a solid political transition and free elections supervised by the UN to change the incumbent regime.

They believe Iran’s influence on Al-Assad is greater than Russia’s, and they link the curtailing of that influence to what the US will do about the nuclear deal with Tehran, to be decided by US President Donald Trump on 12 May.

The Russia-Iran-Turkey conference dashed the hopes of the West regarding greater Russian cooperation because it confirmed Astana as the Russian preference for the peace negotiations, something which the West does not recognise because it promotes the Syrian regime. It also curbs the role of the Syrian opposition in any transitional phase.

The opposition and its Arab and Western supporters believe there is only one track that can lead to their goal of political transition and stability in Syria, which is the UN-backed Geneva process overseen by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.

However, this process is not acceptable to Russia, its allies and the Syrian regime, and these are trying to obstruct it by inventing parallel paths such as those pursued at Astana, Sochi and Moscow.

Europe does not want to move on the reconstruction process in Syria for the time being, because it does not want to help rebuild cities that will be ruled by the same man who destroyed them.

It blames the Syrian regime for derailing the Geneva track and Russia for blindly supporting the regime, using its veto power at the UN Security Council 12 times to block resolutions that might contain a solution to the crisis.

The recent missile strikes on selective targets by three permanent members of the Security Council were not enough to convince Moscow, Damascus and Tehran to move forward on a political solution.

The path of the negotiations in Geneva will not be easy, especially if Iran and its militias in Syria are not neutralised or forced to leave the country. Iran has recently appeared to have become an equal partner to Russia in Syria, competing with Moscow for control of Syria’s economy, especially as it has spent more than $20 billion on the war, according to Iranian officials.

It is determined to recover this sum many times over to save its own economy, commentators say.

The strikes proved the ability of the West to intervene in Syria by force outside the Security Council. Russia is in a weak position, and in the end may accept its share of Syria in the form of a military base and gas-prospecting rights in the Mediterranean in return for abandoning its Iranian partner.

There are doubts there can be a negotiated solution while Iran maintains extensive control in Syria.

The West doubts there will be a successful political solution as long as Russia insists on destroying the opposition and protecting the regime and as long as Iranian-backed militias and terrorist groups remain in Syria.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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