Many international meetings on Syria took place in the second half of October, and there was much activity on the regional and global stages to jumpstart the stalled Syrian peace track before UN Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura leaves office at the end of November.
De Mistura visited Syria, perhaps for the last time, for just a few hours late in the month due to a dispute with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on a new Constituent Assembly.
During a briefing to the UN Security Council some days later, de Mistura said the regime did not want to see the UN play a role in drafting a new constitution.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem “understands the role of the UN differently,” de Mistura said, adding that he had refused a UN role in choosing the names of members of the Constituent Assembly, preferring to see this handled by Russia.
The Constituent Assembly is expected to include 150 members, one third from the opposition represented by the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC), one third nominated by the regime and one third chosen by de Mistura.
The Assembly will be in charge of drafting a new constitution.
Russia has been trying to override UN Security Council Resolutions on Syria, and it has supported regime efforts to sideline de Mistura’s contribution to the Constituent Assembly in order to remove the UN from the equation.
Russia wants to see the Syrian crisis dealt with under the umbrella of the Russian-sponsored Astana Process, while strengthening its negotiating hand against Washington and the EU.
A delegation from the HNC, the umbrella body of the Syrian opposition, has visited Moscow and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the Constituent Assembly and the situation in Idlib in northern Syria. It was not optimistic about the possibility of changing the Russian position.
Head of the HNC delegation Nasr Al-Hariri said after the meeting that there had been no change in Russia’s position except to put more pressure on the opposition to join the Astana Process and ignore the UN Resolutions.
He said that any credible political process should be balanced and compliant with UN Security Council Resolutions and the Geneva Declaration, meaning that it should be under UN auspices and not Russian sponsorship.
He urged those involved to decide a timeline for the formation and programme of the Constituent Assembly.
De Mistura is slated to give a final briefing on the matter on 19 November, his last before leaving his post. Russia wants to play a role in appointing his successor, and it has objected to four candidates suggested by the UN secretary-general.
Meanwhile, on 26 October Turkey hosted a four-way summit meeting in Istanbul attended by the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France to discuss the Syrian crisis with a view to finding common ground. However, it seems clear that the US will never agree to any leading Russian role.
At a news conference after the Istanbul meeting, leaders Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel highlighted their differences on the Syrian crisis.
Putin championed fighting terrorism, while Erdogan focused on fighting “terrorist” Kurdish elements in northern Syria.
Macron and Merkel emphasised the need to hold free and fair elections in which all Syrian nationals could vote, including those overseas.
On 28 October, the International Syria Group met in London attended by representatives of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
Washington sent an invitation to the opposition to attend the meeting in a sign of its renewed support for the opposition on the global stage.
The meeting aimed to support UN pressure to announce the launch of the Constituent Assembly in Syria, with its programme being seen as a victory for the opposition and a defeat for the regime.
At the same time, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis said that Russia “through its support of Al-Assad in Syria will not be able to replace the US in the Middle East.”
Speaking at the Manama Dialogue Conference in Bahrain, Mattis added that Russia’s “opportunism” and “willingness to overlook Al-Assad’s crimes against his own people” were evidence of its “lack of commitment to essential moral principles”.
“Russia’s presence in the region cannot replace the long-standing, enduring and transparent US commitment to the Middle East,” he said.
The Syrian crisis continues to be determined by two basic positions. Russia supports the regime and its control of all Syrian territory, and it has called for the return of the refugees and the start of the reconstruction process. It wants to see a new constitution similar to the current one and the exit of all foreign forces in Syria except its own.
The US supports a political transition in Syria based on UN Resolutions and a new constitution that guarantees the rotation of power and paves the way for the removal of Al-Assad from power. It wants to see Iran-backed militias excluded from Syria and clear boundaries on the Russian presence.
Mohamed Al-Hamza, a Syrian opposition analyst, said that “all these meetings and summits are futile unless the US participates effectively. While the US is present in many of the gatherings and Washington will agree to the decisions taken, Iran and the regime will not.”
“The meetings are intended to pave the way to an international position that complies with UN Security Council Resolutions on political change, because Russia cannot continue the same agenda as it has over the past seven years of whitewashing Al-Assad of his crimes.”
Russia’s position is more fragile than that of the US. Moscow relies on the co-sponsors of the Astana Conference, Turkey and Iran, while Europe and the Arab countries back the US.
Turkey has been swaying between Russia and the US, apparently uncertain about where its strategic interests lie. Iran is largely shunned by the international community, and its alliance with Russia is void of real trust since the two countries have few interests in common and their ideologies clash.
The US alliance is more stable, and it will be hard to make political progress, no matter how many meetings are held, without the blessing of the US.
This is not likely to be forthcoming soon, at least not until after the upcoming midterm elections in the US.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Many summits, modest results