Russia-US Rapprochement on Syria

Article Summary
Despite continued disagreements regarding the Syrian conflict, the US and Russia have agreed on the need for a political solution, writes Mohammad Ballout. 

The American-Russian rapprochement is no longer a secret. It has recently advanced toward discussion of the principles for a political solution in Syria. This convergence has been reinforced by both sides' firm conviction that continued conflict will make the Islamists, and jihadists in particular, a major power in Syria in the future.

After months of silence by the Americans, the Pentagon called yesterday [Feb. 19] for a “peaceful solution” in Syria. The US State Department issued a statement saying that Secretary of State John Kerry had conducted a half-hour phone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in which they discussed the situation in Syria.

According to the statement, the two agreed to hold their first meeting together in the coming weeks, and their discussions on Syria had stressed “the need for both the United States and Russia to use their influence on the parties [to the conflict] to support a viable political transition process.” The statement added that Kerry underlined “the urgent need to end the bloodshed, prevent further deterioration in the state institutions, and protect the rights of all Syrians and help them to fight extremism and further sectarian conflict.”

For his part, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced from Cairo continued dialogue at the UN “in order to get out of the dark tunnel.” He supported the initiative of the head of the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Moaz al-Khatib, who had called on international parties to endorse it. Brahimi will be heading tomorrow to Moscow, which will also be visited by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Khatib at the end of February.

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According to Russian and Arab observers, it is unlikely that a dialogue will be completed for a few months, given the divisions within the opposition coalition itself, the West’s double standards that range between seeking a “peaceful” solution and “arming” the opposition, and a reality on the ground in which the war has hit a high point, while killings and kidnappings are on the rise.

No dialogue will be held between the Syrian regime and all opposition factions for a month. The visits of Moallem and Khatib to Russia don't mean that Moscow will host the first political breakthrough in the Syrian crisis at a Russian-led negotiating table with opposition and regime representatives. An expert on Russian affairs says that, in the best case scenario, the presence of the two Syrian personalities in Moscow during the same period might be an opportunity to activate diplomacy behind closed doors, hold close negotiations without a meeting, and carry messages between the two parties to prepare for a negotiations process — which a Syrian opposition member says remains distant.

The Russians broke a promise they had made to the Syrian opposition to host the first direct meeting between a Syrian official — Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haider — and officials from the National Coordination Committee (NCC), including NCC head Haytham Manna and Abdul-Aziz al-Khair, the official in charge of negotiations and dialogue. The meeting was set to be held in Feb. 25 in Moscow and sponsored by the Russian Foreign Ministry, but the Russians could not persuade the Syrian officials to release Khair, who has been held without charge by Syrian air force intelligence since last September.

A Syrian opposition official said that the Russians and Iranians have so far failed to prove their ability to use the influence they claim to possess with the Syrian regime. They also lack a clear agenda to ensure the success of ​​negotiations. Russia could have played a more efficient diplomatic role to promote Khatib’s initiative, which called for pushing the Syrian regime to meet part of his demands — such releasing of detainees — thus strengthening the bloc within the coalition that is inclined towards negotiations and tipping the balance in favor of a political solution.

The Syrian opposition figure said that they had asked the Russians and Iranians to seriously support Khatib’s initiative and the Geneva Initiative, not just verbally. They told the opposition that the regime will not accept the imposition of conditions The Syrian opposition figure said that Khatib’s demands for releasing the detainees are the rights of Syrians, not conditions.

There seems to be a division within the coalition and among the opposition forces in general, between those seeking to develop Khatib’s initiative and convert it to a clear political approach, and those betting on a conclusive military solution at whatever cost.

These two directions coexist within the coalition due to a lack of coordination among those in the Syrian opposition who support a political solution, and their division between the Khatib-Saif wing in the coalition, and the NCC, the Syrian Democratic Forum and the Building the Syrian State Movement. It seems that the bloc that supports Khatib’s initiative and a political solution bypasses the understandings and maneuvers from which the coalition stemmed, and even bypasses the rules of the regime, the opposition and the silent actors. Meanwhile, members of this bloc have found themselves discussing a political solution and dialogue without crystallizing it in a framework that reflects their aspiration to change the Syrian regime, without risking losing of what remains of Syria’s landscape and society.

It seems that a large part of the opposition abroad, particularly that which was formed under Turkish and Qatari auspices, is seeking to disrupt this division, in order to avoid stripping the Muslim Brotherhood bloc and the liberal hawks from a coalition cover to work through. On the other hand, according to a coalition official, the opposition coalition is still making attempts to exclude Saif and Khatib from the coalition. The Muslim Brotherhood has opposed any negotiating process “since they would only have influence in a post-Assad Syria via a military solution.”

A source in the Syrian opposition coalition said that the meeting last Friday in Cairo witnessed a heated confrontation between the coalition’s “hawks” and “doves.” The final statement included new terms that crystallize Khatib’s initiative and call for excluding Assad and the security and military leaderships from any political process, which would complicate any negotiations. The statement linked a solution to US-Russian guarantees and a binding decision by the UN Security Council. It also provided a deadline for the holding of negotiations and pledges of not excluding Baathists and those who were not involved in the crimes committed by the regime against the Syrian people.

The hawks have the majority — comprising 41 of the coalition’s 70 members — while the “doves” and Khatib still enjoy the support of Saif, a key figure in the coalition, as well as a bloc of independent personalities and a group of representatives of the revolutionary movement.

According to a source in the coalition, the blocs that are supported by Qatar and Turkey stand behind the hawks, which are led by businessman Mustafa al-Sabbagh. Sabbagh leads a group of representatives of local councils that maintain 15 votes in the coalition. The coalition member said that the hawks, represented by the bloc of the National Council and the Brotherhood, including their religious or independent national figures, comprise 26 votes.

A Syrian opposition source says that the future of the Syrian coalition is linked to the US position. Having met with US officials, he asserts that the Americans are moving towards reconsidering their positions on all formations of the Syrian opposition based on their positions on the political solution which Washington is working to develop with Moscow, and their method of dealing with the jihadist currents in Syria.

It is no secret that a US-Russian rapprochement has started to move towards the principles of a political solution in Syria. According to the opposition source, the convergence is based on a conviction by both sides that the continuation of the conflict will make the Islamists — the jihadists in particular — an influential group in a post-Assad Syria. They both support an ideal scenario based on exiling Assad and maintaining the Syrian state apparatuses and the army to prevent the spread of chaos, contain the jihadists and secure the transitional phase.

Thus, according to the opposition figure, the parties to the conflict should wait to see the results of the changes taking place within the US administration to find out who will be in charge of the Syrian portfolio especially since Robert Ford will likely quit his current position of managing it and be assigned to another post.

A Syrian dissident conveys the reassurances of Russian diplomats that the meetings with the Americans have advanced — but not enough to reach a vision that can be put forward before the Obama-Putin summit next month.

The Russians say that while the Americans have come to agree on keeping Assad in place during the first months of the transitional period, they have not adequately pressured their allies in Qatar and Turkey to stop supplying the rebels militarily. The Americans still oppose returning to Geneva with the International Working Group in order to develop the agreement which was signed in June 30. 

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Found in: washington, us, syrian crisis, syria crisis, sergei lavrov, security, russia, peace, diplomacy
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