A Saudi-Russian congruence promotes Syria peace process

There is chance for peace in Syria after the “ouster” of Jaysh al-Islam’s Mohammed Alloush from the High Negotiations Committee. Since Saudi Arabia is quite aware that the US-Russian coordination on Syria is gaining traction, it may no longer reject the peace process out of hand. However, it remains unclear how far the Syrian regime or Iran would find the constitution drafted by Moscow and Washington to be acceptable

If Mohammed Alloush were a communist, he would have announced on Monday (May 30)  that he was resigning on health grounds from the key post of the head of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) at the Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

Chief negotiator for Syria’s Saudi-backed opposition group (HNC), Mohammed Alloush (2nd L) speaks with the HNC delegation head prior to a press conference in Geneva on April 19

Chief negotiator for Syria’s Saudi-backed opposition group Mohammed Alloush (2nd L) speaks with the HNC delegation head prior to a press conference in Geneva on April 19

Instead, he claimed he was quitting as a matter of principle, disillusioned with the peace process brokered by the United Nations. Alloush’s disillusionment caught media attention in the West.

However, the Russian state news agency TASS used a careful expression to report the “walkout of Jaysh al-Islam’s representative Mohammed Alloush from the High Negotiations Committee.” Now, Moscow would know it was a “walkout.”

The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir was in Moscow only on May 26 when after the talks with him, Russian Foreign Minister complimented him personally for having “done so much to form a fairly representative delegation of the opposition that is, on a par with a couple of other groups, a key negotiator at the Geneva talks with the Syrian Government.”

Alloush quit three days later on May 29. Within hours, the Russian presidential envoy for the Middle East Mikhail Bogdavov welcomed Alloush’s “walkout” in these terms:

  • It will have a positive influence on progress in the intra-Syrian talks. Those people were taking an absolutely unconstructive approach and apparently they had no intention of negotiating anything good for their country and their people. Those professing such extremist approaches should stay away from the negotiating process.

Interestingly, when pointedly asked whether Russia would now target Jaysh al-Islam for air strike, he replied, “”Moscow considers as legitimate only the targets that were agreed on within the Syria Support Group and with our US partners.”

Moscow will be indiscreet at this point to target Jaysh al-Islam, which is a creation of Saudi Arabia.

The point is, the HNC has been in session in Riyadh through last week and there were discussions about replacing Alloush who is a red rag for the Russians. Alloush’s leadership of the HNC (decided in January by Riyadh) represented Saudi Arabia’s maximalist position.

Moscow felt compelled to move the UN Security Council to include Jaysh al-Islam in the watch list of terrorists. Enter the US to stall the Russian move.

Interestingly, however, the Russians did not protest but merely took to behind-the-scenes discussions to reach an amiable formula to exorcise the Jayash al-Islam.

There is no question that Jaysh al-Islam is a virulently Wahhabist outfit, “a super militia… (which) worked hand in glove with al-Qaeda linked forces, particularly al-Nusra, on most battle fronts” – to borrow the words of Joshua Landis, the well-known American analyst on Syria.

Significantly, the HNC says that Alloush’s decision to step down would lead to a wider restructuring of the leadership. The move probably reflects tensions within HNC.

The HNC faces a dilemma. It was formed in December 2015 following a meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh of several Syrian rebel groups, including the moderate Free Syrian Army and armed groups such as Jaysh al-Islam. It comprised exiles who had no role in the fighting, but Alloush’s presence compensated for the HNC’s lack of legitimacy.

It appears that the Syrian opposition groups will now convene again under Saudi supervision in ten days or so to recast its delegation for the peace talks.

Alloush’s replacement as chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition could well be someone with expertise in diplomacy and international law rather than in the killing fields.

To be sure, what we get here is a nascent Russian-Saudi congruence over the seriousness of the Syria peace talks. These are early days but the Saudi Arabia may no longer be rejecting the peace process out of hand.

Conceivably, this could be happening due to the US and Russia prevailing upon Riyadh, but, equally, a variety of factors could be at work. Most important, Saudi Arabia estimates that the US-Russian coordination on Syria is gaining traction.

Saudi Arabia senses that it is a matter of time before the divergences in the respective Russian and Iranian approaches to Syria will become pronounced. Of course, it is Riyadh’s interests to see that happening.

Secondly, there are signs of a rethink in the Turkish policies toward Syria. Meanwhile, Russian diplomacy has also been actively working on Qatar on a separate track. (President Vladimir Putin put his personal stamp on it recently by receiving the Qatari foreign minister.)

The fact of the matter is that Moscow and Washington have covered a lot of ground to draft a constitution for Syria, which they are interested in putting to a referendum so that free elections in Syria will become possible by the end of the year. The UN and European countries support this effort.

According to media ‘leaks’ so far, the constitution envisages an overall decentralization of power in Syria, division of powers between presidency and council of ministers (and between central and local authorities), removal of Ba’athism as state ideology – and, crucially, providing for ethnic and sectarian quota system (as in Lebanon and Iraq).

Suffice it to say, Riyadh can learn to live with such a transition in Syria, which echoes the Taif Accord that brought the civil war in Lebanon to a close in 1989.

All in all, therefore, it is possible to put Alloush’s exit in perspective.

Call it a “walkout” by Alloush (as Moscow does), or a “forced march” (at Riyadh’s insistence), or a “voluntary” resignation (reading the writing on the wall) – the net effect is that the HNC is being groomed as a potential interlocutor for serious negotiations regarding a transition in Syria.

The peace process can only benefit out of Alloush’s ouster. Josephine Guerrero, spokesperson for the UN special envoy for Syria Staffan da Mistura, aptly told the Associated Press that what is happening is “an internal matter for the HNC”.

She added, “We look forward to continuing our work with all sides to ensure that the process moves forward.”

Of course, there are variables in the situation. Principally, it remains unclear how far the Syrian regime or Iran would find the constitution drafted by Moscow and Washington to be acceptable – or, put differently, whether they would settle for anything less than a decisive victory on the ground.

And there are complicating factors – such as, for example, the Iran-backed Shi’ite attack under way currently to “liberate” Fallujah, an Iraqi city of great symbolism for Sunni psyche, which can trigger a sectarian bloodbath in the downstream.

Clearly, Iran-Saudi relations have further nosedived with Tehran’s decision not to participate in the Haj pilgrimage this year.

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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Categories: AT Top Writers, M.K. Bhadrakumar, Middle East

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