Russia’s Double Game in Syria

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At the Conference Table: Russia’s Double Game

During the last two months we have witnessed two apparently contradictory sets of events – on the one hand the conclusion of the preparatory rounds of the Vienna peace process with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2254 on 18 December, incorporating what had been agreed in Vienna, and subsequent moves by the UN to implement it. On the other hand we have seen an accelerating series of Russian airstrikes against civilian populations in opposition controlled areas: in the period since the adoption of the UN resolution Russian bombs have killed over 500 civilians, 100 of them children (VDC database). That’s a larger number than those killed by Assad’s airforce in that period.

However if we look at these events in the lightof  Russia’s objectives and strategy in Syria they can be seen not as contradictory but as complementary.

In a previous post I outlined Russia’s strategy for the Vienna process, which I described as seeking “a deal …that will allow Asad to remain in place at least until the projected 2018 elections, at which point they hope that he will be able to exploit the fragmentation of the opposition to win a presidential contest.”

Events since then have clarified how Russia hopes to bring this about. First they managed to secure the assent of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to the initial steps in this process: at a joint press conference held by Kerry and Lavrov on 15 December Kerry responded with an extraordinary outburst when he was asked “ can you just respond to the decision by the opposition last week that he [Assad] should go right at the start of a political transition process?”

Kerry replied,

With respect to the announcement or proclamations of the people who came together in Riyadh, that is not the position of the International Syria Support Group. It is not the basis of the Geneva communique [sic]; it is not the basis of the UN resolution.…that is not, in fact, the starting position, because it’s a non-starting position, obviously. So for those people who are going to participate, they understand we are participating under the Geneva communique.

So we now have Russo-American agreement that the regime under Assad is not only a legitimate interlocutor for the first round of negotiations (accepted by the opposition) but also a potential participant in the “governance” that will follow – in other words this would be a “power sharing” arrangement between regime and opposition. The US may have not (yet) bought into the rest of the Russian scenario which goes as follows: the power sharing administration takes the form of a Government operating under Assad’s presidency; this administration agrees a new Constitution which retains the Presidential system; Assad stands in the 2018 Presidential election, and given the continuing influence of regime patronage, the lack of a high-visibility opposition candidate, and the continuing oversight of the Syrian security services, manages to engineer a victory. It may be difficult to pass the test of UN “supervision” of these elections, but the question then becomes (to paraphrase Mussolini’s famous comment about the Pope) “how many divisions has Staffan de Mistura got”

The attraction of this scenario seems to have caused a shift in the position of the Syrian regime, which started out by rejecting the idea that there could be any agreement with “terrorists”. They now, however, seem to have discovered the potential in the Russian version of this process, which they see leading to the formation of a “national unity government”, without a whiff of “transition” around.

There are however certain essential preconditions which must be met if this plan is to be realised. The first is that the Syrian regime must be able to appear to have some power worth sharing (a far from self-evident proposition giving their military dependence on a rag-tag of foreign and domestic militias; and their economic dependence on Iranian financial support and UN aid programmes.)

A closely related second objective is that it must re-establish its authority over the main population centres in order to be confident of engineering a credible victory in a future election. (Two recent opinion polls in Syria suggests this is going to be very much an uphill struggle)

In practical terms, this means eliminating any challenge to the regime’s control over the Alawite heartland of Latakia and Tartous; eradicating or marginalising the irritating presence of opposition forces in the Rif Damasq that surrounds the capital; completing the establishment of regime authority over the city and district of Homs; and securing the arterial transport links between the Capital, and the cities of Homs and Hama.

It would have been nice from this perspective to reassert regime control over all of Aleppo, but that is something that can probably wait.

It is also important to prevent any form of credible alternative governance emerging in opposition areas that might suggest Assad is not the only game in town.

We can see how these objectives have been reflected in current strategy of Russia and the regime.  Several analysts have suggested that Syria is being prepared for partition by moves like the proposed population exchange between Zabadani and Fua and Kefraya. But in my view that is a misreading: there is no possibility that Assad will preside over the overt break-up of the “Syrian Arab Republic” with which his dynastic legitimacy is so intrinsically bound up (nor would Iran find much virtue in the costly dependency of a rump state.)

No – what is going on here is an exercise, not in Partition but in Consolidation and Containment.

The biggest fly in the ointment from this perspective is Idlib, where opposition forces have control of the provincial capital, almost all the province, and several important centres in adjoining south Aleppo, like Maarat al-Numan. It is no coincidence that the Russian bombing offensive has been heavily focused on this area, with more than half the death toll due to Russian bombing operations located here.

Elsewhere the strategy takes different forms: in Zabadani, Madaya, and several towns of the Damascus countryside it is pursued though ruthless sieges that aim to bring opposition communities to their knees. In al-Waer – the main obstacle to regime Consolidation in Homs – it assumes a softly-softly approach in which concessions are granted in exchange for an incremental extension of regime authority.

Despite all this, there remain several problem areas for Russia and the regime. The first as I noted in my previous post is Russia’s inability to round up a credible alternative opposition that would sing from their hymn sheet. This shortcoming was underlined in when the two main wings of the Syrian opposition – the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordinating Body came together for the first time since 2011 in Riyadh and agreed to the formation of a united delegation for peace negotiations with a common programme. The presence of several major armed groups– the first time the armed opposition has been committed to a negotiation process – further underlined the credibility of the Riyadh meeting.

Russia has responded with a petulant rejection of the “Riyadh opposition”. But unable to compose a viable alternative they have simply put forward a list of 15 names who they demand are included in the opposition side of the talks. The “Moscow”15 includes only one serious political force –  the Kurdish PYD, taking advantage of an opposition “own goal” in which  they refused to include the PYD in the Riyadh Conference. The remaining names are of people linked to small opposition groups with no significant following, and Russia’s perennial protégé Qadri Jamil, whose “opposition” credentials are tarnished by his having served as a Deputy Prime Minister under Assad. This is nothing more than a spoiling operation by Russia, which put the Vienna process into slow motion for several days.

Of course this is merely a side show to the real burning issue –  how can a serious peace process develop when the regime and its allies continue with their campaign of mass homicide and starvation? The opposition grouping that emerged from Riyadh has quite rightfully highlighted this but have received no support from either Kerry nor de Mistura, both of whom continue to insist that the talks must begin “without preconditions”.

Nevertheless, de Mistura, did, for the first time, display a certain amount of mettle at his most recent (25 January) Press Conference. He reminded the press corps (and through them the Russians) that the Security Council had given him sole authority to determine the list of opposition invitees and announced that he would be sending out invitations “tomorrow”, for a round of meetings  that would begin on 29 January. He batted away a question about the lack of an expanded list of “terrorist” organisations to be excluded from the peace process saying that he was working on the basis of the Security Council decision which had scheduled only ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, thereby rebuffing Russia’s other big spoiling manoeuvre. He also stated that in determining who to invite he was adopting the criteria of “inclusiveness and substantial weight” If he does draw on the latter consideration that will eliminate a very large part of the “Moscow” opposition.

We will see when de Mistura’s list is revealed just how much independence he is really asserting. The first test will be whether Jaish al-Islam is included: they are part of the Riyadh opposition and an important component of the armed opposition but a force that Russia has been determined to add to the terrorist list (an effort they backed up by assassinating the Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush.) The second test will be how many of the Moscow list are included: Saleh Muslim of the PYD seems a virtual certainty; British-Syrian academic Rim Turkmani could be included (if she is willing) to strengthen the representation of women; but the inclusion of Qadri Jamil would reflect a failure of nerve by Da Mistura.

De Mistura indicated that the next round of the Vienna process will be “proximity talks” i.e. the participants will gather in separate spaces and De Mistura and his aides will shuttle between them trying to establish areas of agreement. This would make it possible for him to manage a dialogue with several participants – the Syrian regime and Riyadh opposition, and others.

But if de Mistura does not deliver what the Russians want they undoubtedly have a Plan B, based on the behaviour of the Syrian government during the 2013 Geneva conference – step up the killing in Syria to try and force the legitimate opposition into pulling out.

In any event, the counter enumerating the Syrian deaths sustained in order to keep Assad and his clique in power is likely to continue ticking up in the coming weeks and months.

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