Vienna Talks on Syria: Diplomacy at Work

Whilst the EU and most of its member states continue to be dazzled by American power, Turkey has its own modus vivendi with both Russia and the United States. The victory at the polls strengthens the hand of President Erdogan.

In the Valdai annual meeting held in Sochi I had listened to President Putin stating unequivocally that military force remains and will continue to be a tool of international politics for a long time. The Russian leader added that the question remained whether the force will be used "only when all other means are exhausted, when it is necessary to withstand common threats." I had also asked Foreign Minister Lavrov, in the same meeting, whether the then changes programmed within the EU (Federica Mogherini and Jean Claude Juncker’s appointments as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the Commission, and President of the EU Commission respectively) would have an impact on world order and on EU-Russia relations. He had replied that he augured that the new team will bring fresh ideas and showed confidence that in time the EU would acknowledge the presence of mind of the hierarchy of the power centres in the world. One year past the event, and we have Federica Mogherini who was quoted as saying in Rome the other day that Russia has contributed prominently and decisively in the calling and holding of the Vienna talks on Syria.

Whilst according to many Western and Arab analysts the United States has been dillydallying with the world order, more intent on imposing a verbal "unilateral diktat", other centres of power (e.g. the Russian Federation in Syria, Saudi Arabia in Yemen) were taking the bull by the horns and resorting to military force as a measure of last resort. The fact that the meeting also included a stronger voiced and wilful Turkey together with an emboldened Egypt, whose vast experience in regional diplomacy is crucial to the exercise, made this first attempt at bridge building (calling it peace talks would be extremely premature and naive) an interesting dynamic in world order with the status and potential of the key players juxtaposed and ready for an intermediate, if not a final roadmap to a diplomatic solution.

One can also contend that the Russian military participation in Syria was clearly organised in such a way as to ensure that diplomacy also takes its course, it can also invite with open arms to the table its main ally, Iran, which was brought in from the cold after the nuclear deal, with Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif considered by the heavyweight diplomat in the EU – Frank Walter Steinmeier, as a credible interlocutor – this has been considered by many as a parallel diplomatic class action of the highest order. It was also clear that in Vienna the theme and topic of discussion was going to focus on Syria, not on the immediate specific removal of Bashar al-Assad, who was only one of the components of the diplomatic debate to take place. The fact that Syria’s territorial integrity and secular character is agreed to be preserved, that government institutions, including the army and security forces (unlike the disaster in Iraq), will continue to function after a political accord is achieved, and that Syrian territory must be secured are key points which appear to be quasi consensual. There are also concerted efforts to agree that ISIS and other extremist Muslim groups must be faced militarily and that the Syrian government and the plethora of rebel parties need to find a political solution for ending the conflict.

For those still clinging to multilateral diplomacy this appears to be an experiment for responsible stakeholders that can be repeated in other parts of the world; it remains to be seen what role will the UN take (or for that matter the EU) – e.g. holding of free elections, or allowing Syrians of whatever denomination, ethnicity or creed to participate in their own political establishments and to use the policy of ballot persuasion to resolve the Syrian question. It is very convenient that Lebanon who was also the party to the talks has a long history of compromise which should prove of some model to the table.

In this scenario, the United States administration is on the defensive, still heavily labouring under the internal repercussions of the nuclear deal with Iran, the ‘fiasco’ in Libya, the heating up of the presidential race, the dismantling of the ‘iron partnerships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the overt economic power struggle with China. On the other hand, the Russian leader has walked the talk with ‘facts on the ground’ and has ensured that the Russian presence emanating from its direct involvement in the war in Syria will have a major impact on the shared solution and on the continued Russian naval presence in Tartus. It is also worth noting more importantly that the EU, whose foreign policy had appeared to be divorced from reality and under extreme pressure on the migration issues, tackled selfishly and nationalistically (which has superseded the impressive solidarity streak of European integration through the Greek financial crisis), has agreed to compartmentalise world issues to ensure that final lasting decisions are taken. But is this the view of the 28 member states? Many believe that sanctions (at least the vocal sabre rattling) against the Russian Federation for its presumed and de facto actions in the Ukraine appear to have been shelved or conveniently discarded by the stronger powers. The visit of French Minister Ségolène Royal to Moscow last week to speak at an event of the Association of European Businesses (focusing on doing business with Russia), underlines this compartmentalisation.

Put simply the Vienna conference is in fact a subsection of the wider debate in the West on how to deal with Russia. The question that comes to mind is this a conference on finding a legitimate transition process in order to save Syria and to have a unified, secular, whole Syria, or is it an attempt to find a way of realistic re-engaging between a fortress Europe, the United States and the rest – i.e. a proxy conference for re-engagement and a continuation of the nuclear deal with Iran, with the added value of the other key regional power - Saudi Arabia, sitting at the table. It is clear, as Mogherini and others have suggested that trust-building measures are indeed gaining impetus and have purposely tempted the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to sit with Russia and Iran on the diplomatic table to gather geo-political leverage. The conference is strategically critical for rehearsing the new engagement of the world order. Ultimately a peaceful solution in Syria will show the way for a middle ground political solution. Indeed a model which can be replicated. One must also remember that it has not been long since ISIS carried out two terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia for the first time, that ISIS took over the oil-rich Libyan city of Sirte, and then the control of the capital of the Iraqi province of Anbar and that Syrian refugees are streaming into Europe - nothing frightened the participants to the Vienna conference more than ISIS at the moment. But is it a coalition of the unwilling? It was said for example that Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict is upsetting Turkey’s diplomatic ambitions. But is it the case? The fact of the matter remains that after Russia’s formal annexation of Crimea; Turkish leaders were restrained in their criticism and have not joined their NATO allies’ economic sanctions against Russia. Turkey is the other key player which has a border of ‘problems’. Whilst Moscow and Ankara have excellent relations (Energy), they are also burdened with areas of disagreement including the role that each wants to play in Syria. It seems that whilst the EU and most of its member states continue to be dazzled by American power, Turkey has its own modus vivendi with both Russia and the United States. The victory at the polls strengthens the hand of President Erdogan and there is a notable expectation that Turkey will indeed call the shots as to when and why President Bashar al-Assad should go. Now more than ever does Europe seem to want a closer engagement with Turkey. Geo-political analysis seems to suggest that even Turkey’s membership of the EU will be put on a fast-track once again. Russia’s relative success with Turkey had evolved beyond mere active diplomacy to also reflect a gradual, inherent shift in Ankara’s perception of its national goals and objectives as its efforts to join the EU receded.

The role of the United States will remain crucial. The question that is being asked is if there is willingness to get back in the front seat which appears still despondently lacking. Many are asking for the template that the United States will insist on regarding Syria’s future. What is the United States willing to concede to achieve these goals? If Syrian human rights should be protected and mass migration halted, it is clear that violence must be reduced significantly. There is also a clear understanding that ISIS is a direct threat to the region — and, by extension, to the world — and it must be defeated. How willing is the United States in compartmentalising its differences with Russia (on the Ukraine) and lead in setting conditions for a political process between key participants to replace the current violence. Is the United States ready to accept the survival of regime elements in Damascus? It is clear that the major participants in Vienna are unusually fragmented, each with their own agenda; a proxy conference diminished the likelihood of reaching the goal of immediate peace and stability in Syria. In addition to this, realistically a holistic solution may take years to be realized.
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