It is very possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin has developed a consensual framework for a political settlement in Syria that would overcome the Assad Knot, after securing important concessions from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The first of these is securing acknowledgment of the leading Russian role in Syria and the restoration of Russian influence in the Middle East.
The second is a willingness for military and intelligence cooperation in the war on ISIS, which would ward off the framing of the Russian intervention as a Christian war against Islamic terrorism, before it spreads to the Russian homeland and near-abroad. The third is defusing preconditions requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down at the start of the political transition, in favor of accepting Assad’s gradual exit in parallel with said transition. And the fourth concession is agreeing to shore up regime institutions as part of the solution, compared to previous positions that insisted on fully replacing the regime with the opposition’s framework.
If Vladimir Putin has decided to build on these concessions, then he must have no doubt discussed with Assad – who was summoned to Moscow this week – a roadmap for his departure. This would likely follow a timetable imposed by the transitional process, which in all likelihood will span months, not weeks. This would enable Assad to step down after defeating “terrorism”, as he always states, after bolstering the Syrian state, as these two elements would constitute an “honorable exit” for Assad, compared to defeat and prosecution for his role in precipitating and perpetrating the atrocities in Syria.
Indeed, if Assad’s Moscow visit and meeting with Putin were instead meant to reaffirm solidarity between the two men, the Russian leader would not have immediately contacted the Saudi king and Egyptian president immediately after Assad flew back to Damascus.
Yet all this does not mean that today’s meeting in Vienna between the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, Saudi, and Turkey will conclude with a public agreement on Assad’s departure. Potentially, Russian proposals may not be acceptable to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, should they be deemed lacking in guarantees. Accordingly, the coming days will prove to be crucial in terms of determining the features of the putative political transition – and names being discussed by the major players could be leaked.
The ‘Assad Knot’
In any case, political realism requires us to be prudent and cautious. For one thing, the Trust Knot is as challenging as the Assad Knot. Furthermore, military battles continue, and could even intensify if the Gulf nations and Turkey sensed Russia could temper concessions while scoring military gains for the Assad regime at the expense of the armed opposition, rather than ISIS. And thirdly, the Iranian dimension of the Russian initiative remains ambiguous; some conjecture that Iran’s role has been undermined by Russia, others believe everything is proceeding in full coordination between Moscow and Tehran to crush ISIS and preserve the regime in Damascus.
It is not yet clear whether the motivation for Putin’s initiative was his realization that there is clear determination to pushback against Russia military operations, as these seek to purge the armed Syrian opposition backed by the Gulf states and the United States. To be sure, the introduction of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles to the Syrian battlefield signaled a shift in the US position: Washington is not going to sit idly by while being blatantly humiliated by a Russian-Iranian alliance as it proceeds to eliminate the moderate Syrian opposition to rescue Assad. That message was communicated unequivocally, and the men in Moscow received it loud and clear.
It is possible that the generals in Moscow were the ones who best understood it, as they recalled what Stinger missiles did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, precipitating its collapse. It is possible that it was they who persuaded Putin the best course of action for Russia and its national interests is to avoid sinking in Syria’s quagmires.
The specter of Afghanistan is not an American invention meant to intimidate Russia. It is a bona fide Russian nightmare that those men, who are holdovers from the Soviet era, have not forgotten. Most likely, those generals rushed to alert their president of the need to avoid the reckless kind of arrogance that could cost Russia dearly, a Christian nation with a sizeable Muslim minority surrounded by five Muslim-majority republics. The top brass must have realized that it would be contrary to Russian interests for Moscow to spearhead the global war on “Sunni terrorism”, and concluded that a deal is better than this quandary.
The Russians have not come out in protests against their government’s support for a president rejected by half of his people, and accused of killing hundreds of thousands. The Russians have gave in to nationalism, considering every stance by their government a response to American and European humiliation during the Libyan war. For this reason, they did not thoroughly analyze the repercussions of Russian policy on the Syrian people. But now that Putin has decided to escalate militarily, the specter of Afghanistan has returned, and Russian protests came out against the adventurism of the Russian presidency and the military has sounded the alarm regarding the cost of intervention in the Syrian quagmire.
However, this does not mean at all that Russia will back down militarily in Syria for fear of “Afghanization”. What it means is that Russia seems to be resolved now to develop a political horizon for its military escalation.
The other parties that have protested against Russian military escalation in Syria are ready to work on a political settlement. However, they too have decided to escalate militarily, as part of their efforts to strengthen their negotiating hand.
The best of the two scenarios is for the coming military escalation to proceed in a gradual manner as the political settlement – agreed to by Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the international community – approaches. The worst scenario is for military escalation to continue without understandings or settlements, turning Syria into a worst example than Afghanistan. What is frightening here is that this is quite possible, despite all indications suggesting a deal is coming.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have made demarches towards Russia a while ago, to persuade it that there is no animosity with it but rather that shared interests are many. The only difference is on the fate of Assad in the political settlement and Russian arms exports to Iran. Even in the aftermath of the surprising overt Russian military intervention in Syria, high-level delegations from Saudi and the UAE still visited Russia, to stress what could constitute a basis for political and economic cooperation.
Saudi and Emirati diplomacy continued to pursue a path of persuasion on Syria, and found around President Putin people willing to listen, because the proposals could save Syria from the coming bind. There is also a welcoming attitude towards partnership with Russia when it comes to rebuilding Syria.
Russia’s vision for Syria
Russian-Turkish and Russian-Qatari relations have been affected by two important factors. First: the Islamist organizations, which Moscow deems to be extremist, including the Muslim Brotherhood backed by Ankara and Doha. Russia accused both capitals of also supporting terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front in Syria. Second: the gas pipelines through Syria and Turkey to export the gas of Russia’s number one rival Qatar to Europe, Russia’s backyard.
Most likely, the Russian domination in Syria would be a turning point with regard to gas pipeline projects for both Turkey and Qatar. Now, Ankara has offered some concessions regarding Assad’s role in the transitional phase and regarding entering as a party to the war on ISIS. Ankara has also waved the migrants’ card to get concessions from Europe and Germany, which has a lot of sway with Russia.
Russia and Iran have been allies as far back as their collaboration in Syria began, and there is nothing to confirm the hypothesis about their rivalry in Syria. However, there might be a Russian desire to take charge of the military situation in Syria, ahead of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, or the Shiite militias backed by the IRGC. Perhaps Moscow believes the IRGC and its allies pose a fundamental threat to its Syria policy, namely to strengthen the Syrian regime and not undermine it, even if this were at the hands of its allies.
If Iran agrees to Russia’s vision for Syria, then there will be no disputes between them. However, if the IRGC insists on its own vision, Iran will have to ultimately decide whether there is a difference between the moderate presidency and its doves, and the hardliners of the IRGC and its hawks, and by Iran here we mean Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The decision on Syria is extremely important for Tehran, and so is its alliance with Russia, and vice versa. Therefore, there must no doubt be prior coordination between the two countries. Both are vulnerable to becoming implicated in the quagmire in Syria. So if both sides see that the time is right for a deal, even if it requires the gradual departure of Bashar al-Assad, then they could agree to one, in return for many gains that safeguard their joint influence over any future authority in Damascus.
The outstanding issue here is the common enemy of all sides, ISIS. Defeating ISIS might be easy if all military and intelligence efforts converge. ISIS seems like a cocktail of intelligence plots, and could be a destructive and terrifying tool in the Syrian polarization.
The coming days will bring new developments that need to be carefully analyzed, without fanfare or fearmongering. It is a crucial stage in the international negotiations on Syria, and could bode well for Syria.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 23, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy