Russia confronts a dilemma. At the most recent meeting of the Astana Process, held October 30-31, Russia signaled its intent to shift its diplomatic efforts from the de-escalation of violence in Syria to a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. To this end, Russian officials announced their intention to convene an All-Syrian National Dialogue Conference on November 18 in the city of Sochi. Despite current uncertainty about the status of the conference, the announcement reflected Moscow’s growing confidence that the regime is now secure, that the opposition must accept the reality of facts on the ground, and that a negotiated settlement, to paraphrase Assad himself, will not accomplish politically what his adversaries were unable to achieve on the battlefield.
Yet in positioning itself as the key broker of a peace deal, Russia has brought to the fore tensions and contradictions between the Astana track and the internationally recognized diplomatic frameworks established to resolve the Syria conflict. And herein lies Russia’s dilemma.
Moscow can use a contrived National Dialogue process—one that excludes key elements of the opposition and takes place outside agreed international frameworks—to engineer a faux political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Yet such a settlement will lack international legitimacy and credibility, will reinforce the refusal of Western powers to support Syria’s reconstruction, and will do little to address the deep underlying grievances that caused the Syrian uprising in the first place. Alternately, Russia can acknowledge that the Astana Process has played itself out, and throw its considerable weight behind efforts to achieve a meaningful political transition in Syria, even against the objections of its clients in Damascus and its partner in Tehran. Such steps are essential if Russia wishes to achieve a settlement that has international legitimacy and credibility, enable Western powers to provide support for reconstruction, and establish mechanisms for addressing the deep grievances that sparked Syria’s 2011 uprising—the only pathway that holds promise of durable peace in Syria.
In other words, despite Russia’s oft-repeated insistence that it views the Astana Process as complementary to and supportive of the UN Geneva Framework, the further it moves toward a Russian-led political track, the more it undermines such claims. To hold a National Dialogue Conference that does not emerge through agreed international frameworks will simply deepen the conviction of the U.S., the EU, and major regional actors that Russia is exploiting diplomatic processes to impose a military solution on the Syrian conflict.
To the extent that Russia views the international legitimacy of a political settlement as meaningful—it is clear that this is of little concern to Damascus—it has reached a critical decision point. It can turn Astana into a political track at the expense of Geneva, or accept that Astana’s work is done, return to Geneva, and put its hard-won leverage over Damascus to work in the service of a political settlement that fully reflects the terms of UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the Geneva Protocol which it references.
Russia no doubt wishes to preserve the Astana Process while keeping Geneva alive to give it legitimacy. Instead, it is increasingly clear that it cannot do both. How Russia resolves this dilemma holds important implications for the future of Syria. Its approach will be significant in determining whether a political settlement is credible and legitimate, includes concrete plans for political transition and a pathway to durable peace and stability in a unitary Syria, or not.