Russia's problem with Syria: How to bring in the opposition forces without alienating Assad and Iran
Russia is struggling to salvage its bid to secure a deal to end six years of civil war in Syria as deepening differences with Iran risk a repeat of previous failed peace efforts led by the U.S.
“Things aren’t going as smoothly as we would want” in the Geneva talks, President Vladimir Putin told reporters Tuesday during a visit to Kyrgyzstan.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov met the Syrian government delegation head, Bashar Jaafari, in Geneva, where the United Nations is holding the first round of Syria negotiations in almost a year. He’s also due to meet the main Syrian opposition group, the Western-backed High Negotiations Committee. It’s demanding that Russia press President Bashar al-Assad and his other chief ally, Iran, to observe a cease-fire and discuss steps for a political transition.
“Iran never wants any solution in Syria, the way they act on the ground shows that they want this war to continue,” the HNC’s chief spokesman, Salem al-Muslet, said in an interview in the Swiss city. “Hopefully, the Russians will understand that there is a partner that does not want any political transition and they will put pressure on the regime to start the negotiations.”
Russia seized the initiative in Syria after the collapse of peace attempts with the U.S. in the last months of former President Barack Obama’s administration. In December, Moscow brokered a cease-fire together with Turkey, a key backer of the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. But despite an accord last month to involve Iran in monitoring the truce, the opposition says violations are continuing by Assad forces and their allies.
The conflict in Syria since 2011 has killed at least 300,000 people, sent millions more fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe, and allowed Islamic State to seize a swath of territory from which to wage a campaign of global terror. While new U.S. President Donald Trump has called for an alliance with Russia to fight the jihadists, he’s also branded Iran as the “number one terrorist” threat even as the Kremlin insists on including Iranian-backed and Assad forces in the anti-terrorist campaign in Syria.
“Russia is in a very difficult position, it’s being torn between its traditional partners, Assad and Iran, and its potential partners in the fight against Islamic State -- Turkey and the U.S.,” said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Middle East Conflicts Center at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, a government-run research group in Moscow.
Despite the cease-fire, which excludes Islamic State and forces linked to al-Qaeda, fighting is continuing in several areas including near Damascus, the opposition says. The UN on Monday said it was “extremely concerned” about the more than 400,000 people who remain besieged in eastern Ghoutah outside the capital. Intense fighting in and around the town has been reported over the past week, according to the world body.
Russian officials say they hope to advance discussions on a new constitution for Syria. Russia proposed a draft law for Syria’s government last month that would reportedly curb some of Assad’s powers and impose term limits.
In a mirror of the previous failed rounds of UN-led negotiations, the opposition is focusing on its demands for political transition, which it insists must include Assad’s departure. The Syrian leader, confident after military advances with the help of Russian air power that led to the capture of the former commercial capital Aleppo in December, maintains the fight against terrorism is the priority.
The HNC will propose to UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, at a meeting on Wednesday that the negotiations focus first on the formation of a genuine transitional governing body, a member of the delegation, Monzer Makhous, told reporters. If these discussions make some progress, the HNC is ready to talk about the new constitution and make terrorism one of the issues on the agenda, he said. The opposition won’t accept to join a token power-sharing government headed by Assad, Makhous said.
Iran and Assad are openly opposed to Russia’s more flexible stance, which it sees as necessary to involve the U.S. and its allies in a post-war reconstruction and secure an exit strategy for its military campaign in Syria, said Shumilin of the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies. “This is a source of major tension, how to bring in the opposition forces without alienating Assad and Iran,” he said.