Russia hosted a new round of peace talks this week, bringing together Syrian government officials and members of the opposition. It was part of the first major attempt at negotiations since U.N.-led talks were convened in Geneva, nearly one year ago. The talks ended on Thursday, with an agreement for parties to meet again at an unspecified date.
With the U.S. largely absent from the political process, Russia, a staunch ally of the Assad regime, has advanced its own proposal for a political settlement in Syria.
While the U.S. and its allies have called for the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, advances by the Islamic State have diverted Western focus away from his removal. That has reinforced the possibility that Assad could remain in power throughout the peace process – a continued point of contention among the opposition, many of whom refused to participate in the Moscow talks.
Reva Bhalla, vice president of global analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory, firm spoke to Syria Deeply about this week’s talks and how Moscow is positioning itself as an indispensable actor in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Why has Russia stepped into the role of mediator? What are they hoping to achieve?
Bhalla: I would put it another way: they didn’t accept the role of mediator; they claimed themselves as the mediator. To understand that, we need to expand our lens to what is going on in Russia’s backyard. Russia is under a ton of pressure with the drop in the price of oil prices, Putin has a lot to manage within the Kremlin, and Russia has suffered a major intelligence failure in Ukraine in seeing a pro-Western government come to power there. Sanctions only exacerbate the economic pressure Russia is feeling.
Sanctions will be reviewed by mid-year. When the sanctions are reviewed in the European system, it will take a unanimous vote to either expand or add any sanctions, otherwise they expire. Russia wants them to expire. Russia needs to find a way to find any arena where it can show its behavior is moderate enough to get countries to ease up on the economic sanctions. Russia is seen as the bad guy in the international system, as a rebel state not part of the club of advanced industrial nations, with the G8. With Russia’s calculation, they are trying to pump up their diplomatic credentials to show they are a responsible mediator.
We saw this the year before last when Russia inserted itself into the Syria negotiations, in the midst of the drama over Edward Snowden, when Russia was using the leaks to create a divide between the Europeans and the U.S. Russia swept in and said it had a resolution for the Syria crisis and came up with a solution for how to negotiate the removal of chemical weapons in Syria. From the surface it looked like Russia was saving the day. In reality, it served Russia in multiple ways: it allowed Russia to present itself as a credible mediator. It created a dependency where Washington had to come to Moscow and rely on its cooperation to resolve thornier issues elsewhere.
The Syrian civil war is a big thorn in many countries’ sides, and the U.S. doesn’t want to go down a path where its involvement deepens in the Middle East. If Russia can present some sort of solution that points towards a resolution of the conflict, it serves multiple purposes – the perception of Russia being a credible mediator, while putting something else on the negotiating table with the U.S. when tensions between the U.S. and Moscow remain very high.
Syria Deeply: The U.S. been largely absent from the dialogue and has made it clear it intends to focus its efforts against the Islamic State, not directly against Assad. How will this shift play out in future peace talks/initiative?
Bhalla: The U.S. has said they support the Russian initiative. They are willing to entertain the option, but they aren’t placing any big hopes on Moscow being able to mediate a power-sharing solution for the Syria conflict. The distress within the Syrian landscape runs very deep among rebel factions. It’s already a big struggle to bring the factions that matter to the table. So far it’s not very clear who will be attending, but it doesn’t really matter if those at the table don’t really speak for the bulk of rebels on the ground. Even engaging in those talks runs the risk of discrediting them among rebels in Syria and the popular support that they receive. It’s hard to see how this latest mediation effort will do anything more than the previous Geneva talks did. There is still a lot of bad blood among a lot of sides.
From the U.S. perspective, they are going to stay focused on addressing the threat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. They don’t want to get pulled into the question of regime change in Syria. If they see pieces in place for a power-sharing solution where Assad would step down and there could be some sort of post-Assad resolution that takes a good number of rebels out of the insurgency, then this is something the U.S. would support. The likelihood of that happening is low.
Syria Deeply: Most of the Syrian opposition groups declined Russia’s invitation to participate in peace talks with the Syrian government in Moscow. What are the points of contention?
Bhalla: How many times have you heard an announcement that the Free Syrian Army is reorganizing themselves under a new leadership and putting their differences behind them, only to see rebel factions fragment over and over again? There is disagreement among the groups – whether you are talking moderate or radical groups – over who represents whom. Anyone going to the table risks undermining their own credibility among the rebels themselves. Then there is the question of whether they can even afford to negotiate with the regime directly if they don’t see the regime as credible. A number of factions are not going to be willing to come to the table until they see there is a post-Assad solution on the table. They don’t want to entertain any idea that involves Assad remaining in power.
In this context, we have to pay attention to Iran and the economic climate. We’ve gotten anecdotes and indications that Syria is not getting the same amount of financial aid from Iran, and indications that Russian support may be more limited.
From the military side, it appears that Syria is getting sufficient support. Iran has even had to cut down financial support for its main proxies like Hezbollah. If the economic situation gets to the point where even Iran sees that it needs to figure out a post-Assad replacement, then there will be more traction in these talks. It doesn’t appear that the financial stress has reached that point yet.
Syria Deeply: What is the best-case outcome/scenario? What is the framework for discussion?
Bhalla: Russia is going to try to score diplomatic points by playing host to these talks … it is basically trying to insert itself in every way it can in all of the U.S. engagements in the region. We see that in the Syria talks and in the U.S.-Iranian talks as well, where on one hand, Russia is supplying Iran with much needed air defense improvements, and on the other hand, it inserts itself into the nuclear negotiation by promoting itself as the supplier of nuclear fuel for Iran. The Syria talks is just one tiny piece of that overall strategy.