Putin pivots to Europe for next play on Syria

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Article Summary
Russian president intensifies diplomatic push; Erdogan goes "big" to leverage the Khashoggi murder with the Trump administration; Oman emerges as Israeli-Palestinian broker.

Putin embraces “​four-party talks”

While US officials spoke last week about “contesting more actively” Iran’s actions in Syria, Russia pressed ahead with a new diplomatic initiative involving Europe.

Russia’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, met Nov. 6 with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after arriving from Tehran. “The focus,” reports Maxim Suchkov, “was the Russian-Turkish memorandum on Idlib signed in Sochi on Sept. 17; the formation of the Constitutional Committee; Syria’s postwar restoration; and the creation of conditions for the return of refugees. The Russians also briefed Syria on the results of the Oct. 27 meeting in Istanbul between the presidents of Turkey, Russia, Germany and France.”

“Russia is making sure its own initiatives are well sealed and recognized by other major regional players before UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura steps down at the end of November,” writes Suchkov. “Russia is thus pressing Assad to speed up the formation of the Constitutional Committee — part of the mission of the high-level delegation in Damascus. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Sergey Ryabkov have engaged in a frenzy of diplomatic activity, meeting with ambassadors of virtually all Middle Eastern countries over the last four days.”

 “Putin’s embrace of the four-party talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made many in Moscow believe that Russia now seeks to merge the two formats of the Astana group and the two leading European nations from the so-called small group,” adds Suchkov. “Now that any meaningful progress within the small group is stalled — from Russia's perspective — with its participants seeking other venues to strengthen their own positions in the Syrian political settlement, and the United States lacking any clear set of objectives that could genuinely unite other members, Moscow believes the conditions are ripe to engage the Europeans who are open to such engagement, albeit each for their own reasons.”

“Although Iran is absent from the Istanbul quartet,” writes Suchkov, “Russia sees it as an important puzzle piece for a Syria settlement and thus briefs both Tehran and Damascus on the consultations within the group, which Moscow, too, considers to be a step into linking the Astana format with the Istanbul group. The Astana trio was critical in shifting the balance of forces in Assad’s favor, but now that the conflict has moved to the political realm, a broader coalition with Europeans is needed, both for the sake of the process' legitimacy and for financial reasons. German companies are eyeing possible contracts in Syria’s restoration, partially helping to alleviate Russia’s own concerns for finding the money for reconstruction.”

Erdogan plays big with US

Cengiz Candar explains how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be leveraging the Jamal Khashoggi case to play “big,” writing that Erdogan “is one of the very few people in the international game who has leverage with the leaders of both the United States and Russia.”

Erdogan has not held back on his opposition to US policies. He said last week that joint US-Syrian Democratic Forces patrols “can cause serious negative developments” and slammed US sanctions on Iran as ‘imperialist,” Jasper Mortimer reports.

Candar wrote of Erdogan, “His relations with Washington are better than they have been for some time. Turkey has surprisingly become one of the eight countries exempted from the American oil sanctions against Iran. What makes Turkey privileged is that it is the only country among the eight on the oil waiver list that is Iran’s immediate neighbor. … Nothing can illustrate better how relations between Erdogan and Trump have warmed up than this exemption. Erdogan even went as far as to say publicly that the American president promised to instruct his people to review the case of a Turkish bank that is expected to be fined by US Treasury over the Iran sanctions scam.”

When the Turkish president speaks with US President Donald Trump, Candar writes, “It is almost certain that Erdogan will bring up the issue of the eastern Euphrates, where the American military cooperates with the Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Erdogan, emboldened with the dazzling diplomatic show in Istanbul, spelled out Turkey’s intention to eradicate the presence of the Kurdish allies of the United States in the eastern Euphrates and Turkish artillery began to pound the Kurdish targets. Erdogan went as far as to imply that Turkey will move militarily to the towns such as Tell Abyad and Kobani. After the Turkish artillery bombardment, the Americans started joint patrols with elements of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units along the Turkey-Syria frontier to deter Turkey from creating a potential bone of contention between the two NATO allies.”

“It remains to be seen how Trump will react to Erdogan’s possible demands involving the eastern Euphrates,” Candar concludes. “It appears that Turkish objectives are irreconcilable with those of the Syrian Kurds and the United States, unless the latter decides on a “sell-out” of the Kurds. History has a record on this that Erdogan should well know.”

An Abbas-Netanyahu summit in Oman?

Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Oct. 31, five days after the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Oman, with a message for Abbas from Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, placing Oman at the center of a diplomatic flurry on the otherwise stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

“Netanyahu’s visit to Oman on Oct. 26 triggered the fears of the various Palestinian factions,” writes Adnan Abu Amer. “Islamic Jihad spokesman Daoud Shehab told Al-Mayadeen on the same day that Netanyahu's visit to the sultanate could open a new channel of negotiations with Israel. In turn, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine described the visit in a press statement as an advanced stage of normalization in tandem with the efforts of the United States to pass its "deal of the century. … Head of Fatah's Information Department Munir al-Jaghoub said in a press statement that the visit aims to undermine the Arab peace initiative based on “the land for peace” formula. On Oct. 27, he denied these statements.”

“Hamas was angered by Netanyahu’s visit to Oman,” reports Abu Amer. “In an interview with Al-Monitor, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, “It is terribly wrong to receive Israelis on Arab premises. This cannot be justified as a step aimed to achieve the best interest of the Palestinians. This must not be repeated. Israel is the enemy.”

“Israel and the PA are aware that Oman has managed to organize negotiations on major files such as Iran's nuclear deal, the Yemen war and the Gulf crisis,” Abu Amer continues. “This makes it a neutral intermediary, though it operates in secret and out of the limelight. … Oman has emerged as a mediator with the ability to host the Palestinians and Israelis. It could be planning to hold a summit between Abbas and Netanyahu, which could be a golden opportunity for the sultanate to rise as a political mediator, while all other regional countries are preoccupied with their internal issues.”

“Israel has managed to be hosted in yet another Arab capital despite the halt of negotiations with the Palestinians,” Abu Amer concludes. “This proves that Israel can communicate with the Arabs by bypassing the peace process. As for the Palestinians, they have yet to reap the gains contemplated from this Omani movement.”

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