Moscow’s leverage over Assad will diminish with time, writes Valdai Club expert Randa Slim. There is a short window of time for Russia to midwife a political solution in Syria and translate its military success into a diplomatic achievement that can lay the groundwork for a durable and sustainable peace in Syria.
The eighth round of the Geneva talks on the Syrian conflict began last week, and as with previous rounds, the prospects for face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition are dim. Let us not kid ourselves. These are not negotiations between equals. Thanks to military support from his allies in Moscow and Tehran, President Bashar Al-Assad has shifted the conflict trajectory irreversibly in his favor. The Syrian opposition military formations no longer present an existential threat to the Syrian regime and regional and international supporters of the opposition are no longer willing to invest the resources necessary to reverse these dynamics. Moreover, the winding down of the war against ISIS eliminates another obstacle to the regime regaining more of the Syrian territory it lost over the course of the seven-year civil war. Absent a change in US policy, the most likely scenario over the next three to four years is that the Assad regime will advance slowly across Syria.
Sochi Summit: Common Will of Three Guarantors Brings Expected Success
The summit in Sochi on the future of Syria brought new hope for stability and peace. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the “locomotive” of the summit where Turkey and Iran were the “first class passenger cars” in this train of peace after nearly seven years of civil war in Syria. Russia is now the “peacemaker” in the Middle East, and Syrian president Bashar Assad’s meeting with Putin before the summit already indicated that Syria was the beloved “protegé” of Russia.
Assad comes to Geneva least incentivized to make serious concessions at the negotiation table. On the one hand, he has always considered the Geneva process a sideshow. On the other hand, he sees the reference points for the Geneva process including UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the June 30, 2012, Geneva Communique, no longer apply given the military realities on the ground.
UN Special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura has limited the agenda for this round of talks to the principles for a political solution in Syria, constitutional amendments and elections. It is not clear whether presidential elections are part of these discussions at all. The Syrian regime’s stance on this issue has been consistent: Assad will finish his current term that ends in 2021 and will run again in future presidential elections. Since the 1970s, presidential and parliamentary elections in Syria have been neither free nor fair. As long as the much-feared Syrian intelligence services are left untouched, elections will be neither free nor fair, even if held under UN auspices.
If the past serves as a prologue, the constitutional reforms that will be acceptable to the Assad regime will be cosmetic. In the past, the constitutional amendments offered by the regime did not limit the president’s powers, nor did it create conditions for the devolution of power, or place restrictions on the modus operandi of the Syrian security and intelligence services. Without the institutionalization of legal processes to hold the leadership of the security sector accountable for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians barrel bombed and disappeared in Syrian jails, millions of Syrians including those who left their country, will not feel safe.
Russia faces a critical juncture in its role in the Syrian conflict. It is now the indispensable power in Syria. It plays a lead role in a multi-level negotiation architecture that continues to evolve around the Syrian conflict. Currently, there are three different sets of negotiations: the UN-led intra-Syrian process in Geneva, the Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana negotiations, which have to date focused mostly on military measures such as de-escalation zones, and US-Russian-Jordanian negotiations on de-escalation zones in southern Syria. Added to that is Moscow’s planned 1,000-plus People Congress of Syrian leaders, parties and civil society representatives in Sochi.
In Syria, the Kremlin has gained leverage over all the conflicting parties. Russia has stepped up its direct engagement with elements of Syria’s armed opposition on the ground. Recently, Moscow played a key role in the opposition talks convened in Riyadh, which led to the formation of a new Syrian opposition negotiation committee that, according to senior Russian officials, is moderate and representative.Moscow’s leverage over Assad will diminish with time. Assad has always been a difficult client who has cultivated the art of playing his international and regional backers against each other, and has been doing as such between Russia and Iran over the course of the conflict. Assad has still not consolidated his hold on power to the point where he thinks there will be minimal costs to defying Moscow's demands. There is a short window of time for Russia to midwife a political solution in Syria and translate its military success into a diplomatic achievement that can lay the groundwork for a durable and sustainable peace in Syria.