Syria: From Vienna to Sochi

If Russia truly wishes to achieve its goals in Syria, it will need to bring more into line a regime that feels emboldened by Moscow’s support and acts as if impervious to Moscow’s pressure, writes Joost Hiltermann, MENA Program Director at the International Crisis Group.

The UN-led Syria talks in Vienna last week highlighted two inescapable truths: The Geneva process has come to play second fiddle to the Russia-sponsored Astana process, which more accurately reflects the balance of forces on the ground in Syria; and Astana can’t replace Geneva if Russia, which is in the driver’s seat, wants the conflict the end via negotiations and a political transition.

Astana’s predominance was brought home by the collapse of the Vienna talks and the UN decision to allow its Syria envoy, Staffan DeMistura, to attend the peace conference in Sochi this week. DeMistura will arrive with his pockets empty: the UN has been unable to make progress on core elements of UN Security Council Resolution 2254: a transitional governing body, the drafting of a constitution and UN-sponsored parliamentary as well as presidential elections with diaspora voting. The main obstacle has been regime resistance to any sort of concession that would threaten the power of President Bashar Assad.

Yet it’s that same regime recalcitrance that will hamstring Moscow in its aim to pursue a negotiated end to the war. For Russia to declare victory and pull out of Syria without the risk of being drawn right back in because of enduring chaos it knows it will need a modicum of international consensus on political steps following a nationwide ceasefire. Only this will deliver significant international reconstruction aid and investment; without that, a stable peace is likely to prove elusive. Whatever results are achieved in Sochi therefore must be endorsed by the other principal external actors (notably, the US, UK, France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and what remains of the Syrian opposition.

This will not happen as long as Russia’s inability, or unwillingness, to restrain the regime on the ground and nudge it along at the negotiating table continues to hold both the Geneva and the Astana process hostage. During the Vienna meetings, Russia pushed for a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, likely as an inducement for opposition representatives to attend Sochi, but the regime failed to abide by it, and blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid. Partly for this reason, perhaps, and partly because the regime showed no interest in negotiating anything of substance, the opposition decided to stay away, expecting nothing better. (The fact that Russia greenlighted Turkey’s assault on Afrin similarly discouraged Kurdish insurgents from joining the talks.)

Nor has Russia succeeded in bringing the Assad regime closer to the international consensus. While Moscow reportedly gave assurances to the UN that Sochi would be a one-off event linked to the Geneva process, Damascus has yet to publicly affirm its recognition of key components of Resolution 2254: it has agreed only to reform of the current constitution and the holding of parliamentary, not presidential, elections.

If Russia truly wishes to achieve its goals in Syria, it will need to bring more into line a regime that feels emboldened by Moscow’s support and acts as if impervious to Moscow’s pressure. Only then would it demonstrate that it is capable not only of winning the war, but also of securing a sufficiently stable post-war order, and allow it to extricate itself successfully.

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