Diplomatic leg work on Syria gathers momentum

The US President Barack Obama made phone calls last week regarding Syria to the leaders of two key Middle East allies – Turkish President Recep Erdogan and the UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The White House readouts on the two conversations carefully avoided making any criticism of the Russian military operations in Syria.

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Interestingly, the readout on the conversation with Erdogan, makes no reference to Russia (although the Turkish version reported the two leaders discussed what could be done about the Russian military activities in Syria.)

On the other hand, the readout on Sheikh Zayed also, while making an inter alia reference to the Russian operations, avoided any critical tone as such – “They [Obama and Sheikh Zayed] agreed that Russia’s military operations in Syria should focus on IS – not moderate Syrian opposition groups – and reaffirmed the importance of establishing the conditions necessary for a political transition in Syria”.

Conceivably, Sheikh Zayed briefed Obama about his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago in Sochi. Moscow has been paying great attention to build trust and mutual confidence in Russia’s relations with the UAE in particular and a ‘critical mass’ is indeed appearing in the relationship, enabling them to meaningfully engage on the regional issues such as Islamic State, Libya and so on. No doubt, Moscow sees this as a parallel track while a sustained dialogue is being developed with Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, it needs to be noted from the White House readout that Obama and Sheikh Zayed focused on a transition in Syria but, here too, the carefully worded readout refrains from adding any preconditions to the Syrian transition.

Having said that, Washington’s difficulty in finding common ground with Turkey over the Syrian question is apparent. For one thing, the US feels exasperated that Erdogan remains ambivalent about the Islamic State. A recent report in the Hurriyet newspaper estimated that Turkey has been noticeably disinterested in joining the US-led air strikes against the IS targets conducted from the Incirlik air base.

Turkey is furious that the US recently air-dropped 50 tons of ammunition in the Syrian Arab strongholds, with the intention that the interpret that supplies will reach the Syrian Kurds who are fighting the IS. (WSJ)

It must have caused annoyance to Washington that Turkey publicly rapped the American knuckle over the US’ alliance with the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish observers, in fact, interpret that it is these tensions in US-Turkey ties relating to the Syrian Kurds that actually prompted the phone conversation between Obama and Erdogan.

Evidently, the last thing on Obama’s mind was to rally Erdogan or Sheikh Zayed behind a US project to mount a ‘proxy war’ against Russia in Syria.

Meanwhile, the US is closely watching the Russian diplomatic moves. Close on the heels of the recent understanding between Russia and Saudi Arabia to coordinate over Syria, Putin’s special representative for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdanov travelled to Cairo to meet Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and the Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby.

It would appear that Moscow is inching closer to the setting up of a coordination centre in Cairo (similar to the Baghdad-based centre Russia recently established with Iran, Syria and Iraq), possibly under the aegis of the Arab League. If so, this is a brilliant diplomatic initiative by Moscow that brings together the various strands – Russia’s growing proximity with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Moscow’s close ties with Jordan, and the revival of the cold era relationship between Moscow and Cairo – with a view to create new momentum for a Syrian peace process.

However, it is far from the case that Putin has given up hopes on Erdogan. There is every likelihood that at an appropriate time, Putin will re-engage with Erdogan.

Equally, Moscow will factor in that the European Union also works as a moderating influence on Turkish policies towards Syria. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a hurried visit to Turkey in the weekend with the apparent objective of discussing a common plan on the Syrian refugee issue, but in the event, Turkey’s EU accession question has received a new push.

Last week, an important Track II event was held in Moscow to review the state of play in Russia-Turkey relations, especially the tensions that have appeared of late. Again, reports mention that on his way back to Moscow from Cairo, Bogdanov broke the journey in Istanbul to hold consultations with a top Turkish Foreign Ministry official. Without doubt, Putin pins hopes that he can carry Erdogan along while navigating the difficult path ahead leading to the Syrian transition.

All things taken into account, therefore, Washington must be exceptionally dumb-witted not to comprehend that Putin really means what he says – namely, that the Russian military operations in Syria are intended to shepherd the protagonists (excluding the IS and other extremist groups) – to the conference table.

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