Syria: Russia’s peace efforts acquire gravitas

The sudden visit by the US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with King Salman at his ranch outside Riyadh can be seen as a swift follow-up on the phone conversation he held with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov the previous day.

Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry seem to be making efforts to formulate a peace plan

Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry seem to be making efforts to formulate a peace plan for Syria

Lavrov had initiated the phone call to Kerry, which followed their meeting in Vienna on Friday together with their Turkish and Saudi counterparts. Lavorv also held telephonic conversations on Saturday with his Iranian and Egyptian counterparts.

Evidently, Lavrov and Kerry are engaged in what increasingly seems a combined mutually reinforcing effort to flesh out a peace plan that finds acceptance with the external players who are aligned with them while also not entirely in sync with them as well as with the Syrian parties concerned. The brainpower could be Lavrov’s, but Moscow’s priority is to work with Washington to the extent the latter is willing – the common ground is steadily expanding – rather than indulge in one-upmanship.

In bits and pieces, the contours of a peace plan could be emerging out of these hectic consultations. Consider the following statements made by President Vladimir Putin last Thursday in Sochi (on the eve of the meeting between Lavrov and Kerry in Vienna):

  • I am sure that the Russian military operations [in Syria] will have the necessary positive effect on the situation, helping Syrian authorities to create the conditions for subsequent actions in reaching a political settlement.
  • Here is what we believe we must do to support long-term settlement… First of all, free Syria and Iraq’s territories from terrorists… And to do that, we must join all forces – the Iraqi ad Syrian armies, Kurdish militia, various opposition groups that have actually made a real contribution to fighting terrorists – and coordinate the actions of countries within and outside of the region against terrorism.
  • Second, a military victory over the militants alone will… create conditions for the main thing, namely, the beginning of a political process with the participation of all healthy patriotic forces of the Syrian society… The collapse of Syrian government will only mobilize the terrorists. Right now, instead of undermining the Syrian authorities, we must strengthen them, revive them, by strengthening state institutions in the conflict zone.
  • Of course, the Syrian leadership must establish working contacts with those opposition forces, which are ready for dialogue. As far as I understood from the meeting with President Assad [on Tuesday]…, he is ready for such dialogue”.

Putin was speaking in Sochi at the annual conference of the Valdai Club, an elite forum associated with the Kremlin, but in reality he was addressing President Barack Obama, making an impassioned appeal for Russian-American cooperation and coordination over the Syrian crisis.

From the shift of the tectonic plates since then, it appears Obama is veering round to favoring US-Russian coordination at the diplomatic level in tackling the Syrian problem.

Indeed, Lavrov has been separately signaling to the Syrian rebels in the weekend, which could only have been consistent with the overall framework of his conversations with Kerry. Among the things Lavrov said, the salience lies in the following:

  • Russia does not want to take into account the “specific interests” of either Bashar al-Assad or the opposition. The important thing is to have a peaceful environment in Syria.
  • Moscow is intensifying its drive “to convert its increased clout with Damascus into a political settlement… External players cannot decide anything for the Syrians. We must force them to come up with a plan… where the interests of every religious, ethnic and political group will be will protected.
  • The Syrian parties “need to prepare for both parliamentary and presidential elections”.
  • “The Americans’ refusal to coordinate their anti-terrorist campaign with us is a big mistake. We are seriously prepared for such coordination… we are ready to give air support to the patriotic opposition, including the so-called Free Syrian Army (backed by the US and Saudi Arabia).”

Unsurprisingly, the Free Syrian Army [FSA] was taken by surprise and brusquely rejected the Russian offer, but then, they quickly revisited it and since reverted with a proposal to Moscow to hold talks in Cairo “to discuss our collective actions”. A senior FSA representative is quoted as saying, “it is in the interests of Russia and FSA to hold the meeting as soon as possible”.

Clearly, Lavrov’s talk with his Egyptian counterpart on Saturday and Kerry’s dash to Riyadh Sunday can only be seen as related moves on the diplomatic plane.

Meanwhile, Assad has let it be known to a visiting Russian delegation Sunday in Damascus that he is “ready to discuss amendments to the [Syrian] constitution, hold parliamentary elections and “if the people of Syria deem it necessary” will be willing to hold presidential elections.

In essence, Assad has calibrated his stance following his talks with Putin in Moscow on Tuesday and is signaling he is on board to collaborate with Moscow’s efforts to kickstart the stalled political stance in tandem with the Russian military campaign against the terror groups.

These hectic diplomatic activities over the weekend could be leading, hopefully, to an expanded meeting of the “Vienna quartet” next Friday (which would also include Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar) – provided of course “there is sufficient common ground to advance a meaningful political process”, to quote Kerry after the meeting in Vienna last Friday.

In sum, the indications available so far since Friday are that Kerry’s cautious optimism regarding the state of play is justified, when he said, “Diplomacy has a way of working through very difficult issues that seem to be absolutely contradictory and, on their face, begin at odds. And this is one of those issues where the statements clearly – and current positions – are at odds. But if we can get into a political process, then sometimes these things have a way of resolving themselves.”

The bottom line is that it will be problematic for the US administration in an election year to admit that its position on the removal of Assad as the first prerequisite of a Syrian peace process has proved to be a futile demand. On the other hand, an exit strategy becomes available only if the US were to pool efforts with Russia and is joined by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Syrian opposition groups can be expected to accept almost any plan endorsed by these five countries.

All in all, therefore, paradoxical as it may seem at this point, the Russian military operations in Syria may have succeeded in opening the door leading to a political process in which the Assad regime also assumes a role.

An Iranian peace plan submitted to the UN visualizes four sequences – ceasefire between the Syrian government and the opposition, formation of a national unity government, constitutional reforms and elections. The likelihood of this plan transforming as a five-nation proposal (involving US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) cannot be excluded under the circumstances, which would also take care of the vexed question of the governing authority of Assad in an orderly transition.

But for that to happen, as the former US president Jimmy Carter wrote in the New York Times on Saturday, “The needed concessions are not from the combatants in Syria, but from the proud nations that claim to want peace but refuse to cooperate with one another”.

At a minimum, what used to be an empty diplomatic chalice up until the Russian military operations began in Syria seems a bit less empty today, three weeks and four days down the line.

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