The Lausanne meeting, Assad and the al-Nusra Front
There will have been no radical change in Russian or American policies on Syria when John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov resumed their leisurely meeting
There will have been no radical change in Russian or American policies on Syria when John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov resumed their leisurely meetings following their temporary estrangement that had culminated in a Russian veto against a draft resolution at the Security Council amid mutual polite accusations by the two countries’ UN envoys. The microsummit of the foreign ministers of the two powers alongside the top diplomats of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey may have succeeded in reaching accord over another provisional truce and urgent humanitarian deliveries, but it is unlikely a lasting agreement was reached on separating moderate rebels from the al-Nusra Front or a permanent solution for the battle for Aleppo.
Interestingly, the two European permanent members of the Security Council, Britain and France, were excluded from the meeting. Paris and London recently led the diplomatic escalation against Russia including by accusing Moscow of committing war crimes and calling for referring its ally Damascus to the ICC. One of the goals of the meeting in Lausanne is to set aside talk of accountability and war crimes by refocusing discussions on a ceasefire, aid and the peace process as Russia and Iran want at this crucial stage of the battle for Aleppo. Perhaps Lavrov’s condition was to exclude France and Britain, given their sharp tone against his diplomacy. What is surprising is Kerry agreeing not to invite his French and British counterparts. The lineup of the invitees suggests the purpose of the meeting was to focus on the main knot and ways to overcome it.
In Russia and Iran’s view, the designation of non-terrorist groups and separating them from the al-Nusra Front have become the main knot. Before addressing the Nusra knot, Assad’s allies are not willing to discuss the Assad knot, the key issue for Ankara, Riyadh and Doha.
The Lausanne summit must have therefore focused on negotiations between the Russian/Iranian axis and the Turkish/Saudi/Qatari axis. The US role appears one of a mediator seeking to facilitate deals while keeping up the threat of joining the three allies present in Switzerland and those absent in Paris and London should the meeting fail.
Russia may give off the impression that its relations in the Middle East are in good shape, however, Aleppo is a cause of major concern for MoscowRaghida Dergham
Ankara, like Washington, remains cautious and wants to keep its options open and its tools sharp. President Erdogan is playing a long strategic game via Syria and is keen to secure permanent local and regional gains. He has a lot in common with Russia’s Putin, not just in terms of consolidating his power at home and their authoritarian traits, but also in their conviction that Syria is crucial to their calculations and the regional balance of power as well as their mistrust of the US and Europe.
At the same time, Erdogan is keen to play a leading role in the Sunni Muslim bloc and is aware of his own importance as a factor that can offset perceptions of the Russian tsar who is bombing Aleppo, a large Sunni city, in partnership with Shiite Iran. Russia’s attempt to offset this via Egypt is not sufficient, regardless of their military exercises and touristic détente. Egypt, the only Arab member of the Security Council at present, can vote to support a Russian draft resolution alongside China and Venezuela, a move that earned Cairo a lot of Arab and Western scorn. But Egypt is not Turkey when it comes to Syria.
Turkey controls many key issues on the ground in Syria while Egypt has little more than rhetoric and is not part of the negotiations and arrangements led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Egypt may be useful, in some degree, to Russia but it is Turkey that can open or close the vital corridors to the battlefield in Syria. Turkey has direct influence with armaments and ammunition to a segment of the Syrian rebels. It can establish safe zones or mobilize support for a no fly zone if no accord is reached with Russia.
Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, as Sunni power, is strategic and crucial. By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Egypt is based on aid and is now strained after Egypt’s contrarian actions in Yemen and Syria. All that investment in Gulf-Egyptian cooperation to restore the Arab weight in the regional balance of power has receded because of divergence over policies, often in a hostile and public manner. Today, there is coordination between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on Syria, which forces Russia to factor it in because it has practical implications on the ground. It is for this reason that these countries and not others were present in Lausanne.
Iran was also present because of the means of war it possesses in Syria through its military advisers and militias led by Hezbollah deployed there.
Perhaps the maximum that can be achieved in Lausanne is resolving the Nusra knot in return for resolving the Assad knot. If this happens and the six powers agree to resolve the two knots, Syria will enter the phase of political solutions. But nothing suggests this achievement is on the horizon at present in the midst of international political and military escalation.
However, the battle of Aleppo will not be settled easily. It seems that Iran and Russia wanted to revive political solutions because they are aware they cannot settle things militarily, hence Lausanne.
Realistically speaking, there is no choice but to resolve the two knots as part of parallel agreements. This necessitates a qualitative shift in the thinking and strategies of Russia and Iran, based on ending their support for Assad remaining in power. There is nothing to suggest this has happened yet, unless there is something we don’t know behind their military moves. From time to time, there have been signs that the other side is willing to agree to a gradual departure of Assad while maintaining the regime. However, nothing suggests a conclusive willingness to abandon Assad in the end.
Perhaps the agreements in Lausanne will help converge the influences of the two sides toward a ceasefire whose goal is to prove their good intentions and determination to collaborate. Or perhaps the outcome of Lausanne will serve to halt the bid by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar toward stepping up military support for the Syrian opposition and stop the French and British bid to hold Russia accountable.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the Security Council to refer the Syrian issue to the ICC, reaffirming similar calls made by the UN Human Rights Chief Prince Zeid Bin Raad al-Hussein. The call includes holding accountable any and everyone who commits war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, be it a state, militia or terrorist group. Ban Ki-moon does not have the power to refer Syria to the ICC, but he can act under Article 99 of the charter to request the Security Council to convene and discuss the issue. This move would have a high moral value even if it ends up clashing with the Russian veto.
Russia recently used its veto power for the fifth time since the start of the conflict in Syria. China broke ranks with Russia when it abstained during the vote on the draft resolution vetoed by Russia, bearing in mind that China previously co-vetoed resolutions with Russia. Moscow described what happened in the Security Council last week, when the French draft resolution received overwhelming support, as Western hysteria. In truth, it is Russia that has been afflicted by hysteria after it incurred humiliation, even as president of the Security Council, by vetoing a resolution that called for a ceasefire and aid delivery then proposed a resolution that added insult to injury when it obtained only four votes in favor.
Russia may give off the impression that its relations in the Middle East are in good shape: it has an alliance with Iran, détente with Turkey, a truce with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, an accord with Iraq, advanced ties with Egypt and very good relations with Israel. However, Aleppo is a cause of major concern for Moscow because it could well be its unravelling. Thus, Moscow may be in the process of reconsidering its decision that winning in Aleppo is the priority.
For its part, the United States is reassured by the fact that it is not involved on the ground in Syria. However, it is aware of the bitter reality, namely that Syria has proven it cannot shirk its international responsibilities. President Obama is leaving the White House with Aleppo on his conscience both as a humanitarian issue and a strategic issue. Russia’s rush to support Republican candidate Donald Trump for president is not about chemistry between him and Putin, but a calculated investment in a man that would bring down America from being a superpower, just like Boris Yeltsin had done with the former Soviet Union.
Perhaps what will save Russia from its Syrian legacy would be an agreement between Putin and Erdogan on a grand bargain, where the Turkish sultan abandons his project for pushing the Muslim Brotherhood to rule in Arab countries, starting with Syria.Then the two men can fix what they broke in Syria and secure their legacy to stop the bloodletting after undoing two key and very clear knots in Syria.
This article was first published in al-Hayat and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham