Syrian peace talks deferred, but no reason to be gloomy

Peace talks are delayed as the Middle East stops all work during the holy month of Ramadan which begins in the first week of June. Moreover, when there are uncertainties in the Syria paradigm, it is better to resume the dialogue with greater certitude over the ceasefire holding. On the positive side, the U.S. may finally agree with Russia on coordinated combat actions in the air space. There are also signs that Turkey may take course correction on Syria  

On Thursday, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura promised that he would announce the dates for the peace talks in Geneva after consulting the 15-member Security Council.

The holy month of Ramadan is round the corner when the Muslim Middle East goes into hibernation

The holy month of Ramadan is round the corner when the Muslim Middle East goes into hibernation

But then, after the consultations with the Security Council, he retracted and said there are no plans for new talks on Syria for the next two to three weeks.

However, a gloomy prognosis is not necessarily the case here. The holy month of Ramadan is round the corner when the Muslim Middle East goes into hibernation. Besides, there are positive stirrings that may well explain the deferment of the peace talks.

When a compass gets reset, all sides maneuver, stake out better negotiating stance. A reset is under way.

First of all, the Russian-American tango has become dynamic. The American side is gradually opening up to the standing Russian proposal that the two big powers should coordinate their anti-terrorist efforts in Syria.

Real coordinated combat actions are not visible on the horizon, but there is progress on coordinating their actions in the air space.

Again, the US agreed to establish a channel to exchange information with Russia with regard to the parties observing the ceasefire in Syria. While on a visit to Tashkent last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said,

  • We agreed with our American partners – not straightaway, but after dealing with their concerns, doubts and even resistance – to eventually move from sharing information to coordinated action against terrorism. These issues are currently being considered by our defense departments.
  • There is now a chance that such coordination will occur. We believe that the Russian (forces) and the aircraft of US-led coalition should operate in a synchronized and coordinated manner and help those who are really fighting terrorist units on the ground – armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic and various Kurdish self-defense units … I can safely say we are ready for such coordination (in the forthcoming operation to capture Raqqa).

If the perception used to be that the US and Russia were ‘competing’ in the race to liberate Raqqa, Lavrov now speaks of ‘co-ordination’.

Equally, Russia is holding back from resuming its air strikes against the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front on May 25, as announced earlier, in deference to the US demarche asking Moscow “to give them some more time” to separate on the ground the “moderate” Syrian opposition groups from the Nusra Front.

To quote Lavrov, “We (Moscow) met them (Washington) half way”.

Also, Russia has not retaliated after the horrific terrorist strikes in Latakia last week. Nor has it endorsed the allegation by Damascus that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar masterminded these attacks.

On yet another plane, Moscow is no doubt closely monitoring the recent developments in Turkey’s domestic politics. The Turkish policies on Syria are at a crossroads after the retirement of the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Unlike Davutoglu who was the ideologue of “neo-Ottomanism”, the new prime minister Yildirim has no doctrinaire thinking. He echoes Erdogan’s thought processes.

Thus, Yildirim’s extraordinary description of the Syrian conflict as “an unnecessary war” in his very first speech on Tuesday after being appointed as prime minister must be noted carefully.

Yildirim announced, “We (Turkey) will increase the number of our friends; we will decrease the number of our enemies”.

Turkish analysts see the remarks as hinting at Erdogan’s intention to take course correction on Syria – as well as to normalize Turkey’s relations with Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Russia.

A rollback of Turkish rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is in evidence lately. Erdogan realizes, howsoever grudgingly, that Assad is unlikely to walk into the sunset in a foreseeable future.

The day after Yildirim spoke, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also came out with an extraordinary formulation on Syria: “A real political transition needs to be implemented for a new democratic Syria, based on the rule of law, in which people can elect their leaders through their free will”.

Not a word about excluding Assad. Cavusoglu added that Turkey supports Syrian people’s aspirations for “a pluralistic and libertarian state” and that this support was regardless of the Syrians’ “origin or doctrine”.

Indeed, the emergent ground realities in Iraq and Syria call for a new thinking on the part of Turkey vis-à-vis the Kurdish problem. There is imperative need of a regional vision.

The point is, Turkey’s staunch opposition has not deterred Washington from co-opting the Kurds to lead the offensive against the Islamic State in Raqqa.

The dramatic visit last weekend by the head of the US Central Command Gen Joseph Votel to the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria has been a wake-up call for Ankara.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post who accompanied Votel wrote, “The practical reality is that only the Kurds – not the Sunnis – have the muscle now”. Votel told him frankly that his job is “to achieve military objectives on the ground”.

Ignatius summed up nicely: “The strategy has an unstated theme: Destroy the Islamic State now; worry about the future of Syria later”.

Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East hand of the Independent newspaper, also arrived at a similar conclusion. Writing on Gen Votel’s trip, Fisk assessed, “there are no (US) plans for a future… No plans for a future policy towards Assad”.

Now, Erdogan’s inner circle admits that Syria policy is a failure, and they conveniently blame Davutoglu.

The impetus for course correction is certainly there. A recent opinion poll showed that only 18% of Turks support the Middle East policies.

Without doubt, a course correction on the part of Turkey will shift the overall balance of forces – even, arguably, the likelihood of a course correction.

Thus, a nascent thinking appears in the GCC’s willingness for the very first time to hold the grouping’s Strategic Dialogue with Russia in Moscow.

Lavrov may have been somewhat expansive in describing the forum (which met in Moscow on Thursday) as “an effective mechanism to coordinate out efforts in the interest of strengthening regional and global security and stability”.

But, from the body language, he apparently had a fruitful interaction regarding Syria with his Saudi counterpart Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir (who led the GCC delegation to Moscow).

Finally, it cannot but be factored in that no matter the controversial reputation of the Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman, his appointment as defense minister makes Israel-Russia equations over the Syrian situation far more predictable.

A first-generation Russian immigrant, Lieberman is close to the Kremlin elites and if a bit of that bonhomie rubs on the Syrian situation, it can only do good.

All in all, therefore, Mistura did not bring bad tidings. When there are so many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in the Syria paradigm, it makes sense to go into the peace talks with greater certitude over the ceasefire holding. The current trends appear to be inexorably moving toward peace talks.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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