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Can the Vienna Talks bring breakthroughs in Syria?

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

The conjunction between the efforts on Syria and Yemen is interesting, especially as the talks also coincided with Saudi Arabia for the first time agreeing to Iranian participation in an international conference on Syria. At the same time, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has stated the war in Yemen could end “soon”, as the Houthis and pro-Ali Abdullah Saleh faction agreed to abide by Resolution 2216 and to engage in U.N.-backed talks accordingly, and after “gains” on the battlefield by the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen.

Washington and Moscow must have no doubt played a role behind the scenes to contain the recent public escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and to find common ground and begin confidence-building measures between the two key states.

The Syrian issue is not sufficient for Riyadh to test Iran’s intentions. Rather, the first and foremost test is in Yemen, where Iranian tentacles have reached the Saudi border via the Houthis, posing a direct threat to Saudi national security.

In the midst of mutual Saudi-Iranian escalation, there has now been a sudden breakthrough in both Syria and Yemen. This was evident from Adel al-Jubeir’s statements on Yemen during a joint press conference with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond; and the Vienna talks that convened Friday, bringing together for the first time Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss the Syrian crisis.

In addition to the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the Vienna meeting included Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini and European countries involved in the Syrian file, such as France.

If one goal of the Vienna meeting is to push the parties to demonstrate good intentions towards the Arab region, Yemen seems to be an easier test for Iranian intentions than Syria. Yet Lebanon could now be the best and most primed place to prove good will on the part of Iran, Saudi, Russia, the United States, Turkey, Egypt, and Europe. One way this may be achieved is by admitting that the decision to obstruct presidential elections there is a regional one, and that the time has come for an international consensus to rescue Lebanon from political vacuum.

Rumor has it that the timetable being proposed by Russia and others on Syria spans between 18 and 24 months, based on military estimates of the time required to defeat ISIS

Raghida Dergham

Indeed, while Syria is the main theme of the Vienna summit, the path to political settlement there remains long and arduous. First, there is a need to build confidence among all sides concerned with Syria’s future and the future of international roles in the emerging Middle East.

What is happening now is that the United States is intensifying its war on ISIS in Iraq, and Russia its war on ISIS in Syria, in coordination between Moscow and Washington, with Turkey and Iran involved in varying degrees and with implications for Arab-Israeli relations and Egypt’s position in the regional balance of power. The old Middle East, as the directors of U.S. and French intelligence services told us, “is finished,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the Middle East has become a base for exporting terrorists.

Military and intelligence cooperation

Putin said that no country in the world can fight terrorism alone, without engaging in intelligence coordination. Putin is thus seeking military and intelligence cooperation in the war on terror in the Arab region and the Middle East. He will not seek to lead the war alone, as this could prove costly for Russia, surrounded by five Muslim-majority republics.

What Putin did not say is that he is the other face of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who once said his war in Iraq was a war on terror far from U.S. cities. Likewise, Putin wants to fight terror far from Russian cities, in Syria. But what both Bush and Putin ignored is that they contributed radically in fueling terrorism and luring it to Iraq and Syria through both their direct and proxy wars.

Both men reduced Iraq and Syria to being questions of terrorism, and barely flinched as they counted hundreds of thousands of victims in Iraq and Syria, as long as the war kept terrorism away from their countries. In truth, U.S. President Barack Obama is not that different.

Not long ago, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan manufactured the jihadists in Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet Union and succeeded. However, this soon backfired, culminating with the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that spared none of them in way or another.

Russia’s hatred for those jihadists, who were the tool that brought down the Soviet Union, is deep seated, and today there is a good opportunity to exact revenge. Moscow is profoundly hostile to Islamism and Jihadism, and this is why Putin has stressed the need for international intelligence cooperation during his address to the meeting of heads of intelligence of Independent States in Moscow.

At the same time, during an intelligence conference in Washington this week, the head of French intelligence Bernard Bajolet declared that the Middle East as we know it is over forever. Bajolet said countries like Iraq and Syria will never regain control of their former borders. He said: “"We see that Syria is already divided on the ground, that the regime is controlling only a small part of the county, only one-third of the country which was established after WWII. The north is controlled by the Kurds,” and ISIS controls the center. "We have the same thing in Iraq" Bajolet also said, adding that "I doubt really that one can come back to the previous situation."

His counterpart CIA director John Brennan, said: "When I look at Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, it's hard for me to envision a central government in those countries that's going to be able to exert control or authority over the territory that was carved out post World War II."

This is what intelligence chiefs are saying publicly. What they are doing behind closed doors is a different matter that will not come out to the light until after military operations are completed and further bloodshed occurs. Even with regard to political meetings that promise to pave the way for settlements and breakthroughs, military escalation seems to be necessary for deals to take place, as its outcome will set the pace for the negotiations.

Rumor has it that the timetable being proposed by Russia and others on Syria spans between 18 and 24 months, based on military estimates of the time required to defeat ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and other organizations Russia designates as terrorist. According to sources, this is what Russia has requested to complete the military mission, while the political solution to accompany the operations will fall within the same timetable give or take.

Assad’s departure, peacefully or otherwise

One of the issues discussed in Vienna I – and perhaps to be discussed in a Vienna II – and previous preparatory meetings in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, is the re-formation of the regime in Damascus as well as the when and the how of Assad’s departure, peacefully or otherwise. Indeed, the form of the new regime will have to take into account that the majority of Syrians are Sunnis, while a reasonable settlement cannot allow a Sunni domination and the exclusion of minorities, including Alawites.

Names of strong Sunni figures are being discussed for the post of prime minister, who would have expanded powers, while the president will continue to be an Alawite, in a solution similar to the Taif Accord in Lebanon. Another idea being discussed is preparing a Sunni force in Syria and another in Iraq. Some are proposing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as one possibility, to be trained and armed by the United States.

According to sources, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama about equipping the FSA with advanced weaponry to be this Sunni force. For one thing, the new Syrian army must not be under Alawite domination, albeit it must exclude no one either.

These delicate details may not be discussed at the ministerial meeting in Vienna. The meeting that will test Iranian and Russian intentions in Syria, as Adel al-Jubeir said, will not conclude with declarations that amount to major shifts in Russian or Iranian positions. It will be a “process”, and processes require successive meetings.

German Foreign Minister deliberately reined in expectations of a breakthrough in the Vienna talks, while his French counterpart said France and its Arab allies will go to Vienna with a request for a specific timetable and mechanism for Assad’s departure.

The problem is that the gap is wide between the Russian position, which together with Iran holds that the government of Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate government, and the Saudi and French position, which considers that Assad has lost legitimacy, along with Washington but only verbally and not in practice because of the Chemical weapons deal.

The other gap is the issue of the reference frame of the Syria talks. If the four powers, the U.S., Russia, Saudi, and Turkey, expand the circles of negotiations to include Iran, then on what basis? If the Geneva Communique, requiring the establishment of a transitional governing body with full powers, is no longer the reference frame for the talks, then what is? If the four powers stopped demanding Tehran to accept Geneva 1 before allowing it to attend the Vienna talks, then what pledge did they get in return?

Most probably, Geneva was suspended as a reference frame in practice to ensure Iran sits at the table. This is another concession to the Russian-Iranian duo on Syria, but behind it, there must be undeclared understandings or deferred gains.

To be sure, Russian-Gulf relations are growing positively. The Saudi King and the Russian leader continue talk, with the king likely to visit Moscow in the coming months.

Russian-Egyptian relations are also moving ahead, not only in defense cooperation, but also with regard to joint efforts to preserve the institutes of the Syrian state. This is while bearing in mind that Egypt is in contact with both the regime and opposition in Syria. In addition, a common denominator between Cairo and Moscow is their hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s joining of the Vienna talks alongside rival Turkey, and Saudi, Russia, the U.S., Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, has important implications. There is a full quorum, at least in this round.

The Vienna understandings could bring a qualitatively new breakthrough in the Syrian issue. But it could end with disappointment, if one of the parties seriously misunderstands the others. What is at stake in Vienna, practically speaking, is not just Syria, but also Iraq in the context of the war on terror and regional-international arrangements. Yemen is also an important gauge of understandings or confrontations. As for Lebanon, it would present a good opportunity to prove good faith and build trust, which Saudi-Iranian, Gulf-Russian, and U.S.-Gulf relations desperately needs.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 30, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.


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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

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