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Russia’s choices: To fight or to negotiate

Recent developments indicate that we are entering into another year without any celebrations of a real victory

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

Recent events such as the Russian plane crash and the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey are not significant enough to compel Kremlin to alter its policy. However, continuing regional and international struggle and the opposition’s determination to continue the struggle are two significant factors. Even after Aleppo’s fall the Syrian opposition did not raise the white flag. Recent developments indicate that we are entering into another year without any celebrations of a real victory.

Russian authorities are concerned about holding celebrations that serve their propaganda purposes in the areas they seized in Syria. They also seem concerned about cleaning and jazzing up the Syrian regime under the umbrella of negotiations for a political solution – a task which so far nothing implies may succeed.

During the last few days, I have tried to understand the nature of Russian approach going forward and how the country will be following the major events that have taken place recently. Aleppo’s fall and the end of US President Barack Obama’s term mean that Moscow intends to continue with the war, enable Syrian and Iranian regimes to control the whole of Syria and achieve complete victory by force. All this means next year will be another year of wars.

Or is it that Russia wants to impose a moderate political solution by benefitting from its military presence. The fact remains that it’s power saved the Syrian and Iranian regimes from being defeated after it invested its intelligence, air force and diplomacy at the UN Security Council.

Thousands of fighters – whether from the armed opposition or terror groups – will make a negotiation plan or a Russian or Iranian formula for governance difficult to execute unless they include their major political demands

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Contradictory opinions

I have heard contradictory opinions in this regard. One suggests that Moscow is willing to do what Washington failed at, i.e. bring the two warring parties, the Syrian opposition and the regime, and form a hybrid government while excluding their marks from the new dispensation.

The second view denies this and insists that Moscow has not changed any of its proposals for two years now. This includes the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, marginal posts for the opposition and promises to diminish the influence of the central authority over the opposition-held areas.

The solution, according to this school of thought, lies in confirming Assad’s authority because all future promises of independent elections and jurisdictions of provinces are fake temptations for a suppressive regime that has not hesitated to exterminate and displace millions of people.

There exists another view which believes that the Syrian opposition ended with the retreat of Turkey and accepted the results of the war in Aleppo. Since Ankara considered that to be the case, it is now fighting Kurdish militias and ISIS. Accordingly, the opposition must accept whatever prominent parties at the negotiation table are generous enough to offer.

Some believe that the situation in Syria has imposed itself on the countries in the region, including on Turkey and the Gulf, and that it is not these countries that invented the crisis. Hence lights won’t go out when rebels simply exit Aleppo or when Turkey scales down its support for the Syrian opposition.

The regime control

The Syrian regime does not control one third of Syria and a part of this area is strategic such as the Damascus countryside, which the regime forces and Iran’s militias are shelling again. Thousands of fighters – whether from the armed opposition or terror groups – will make a negotiation plan or a Russian or Iranian formula for governance difficult to execute unless they include a minimum of major political demands.

If Russian negotiators really decide to adopt a moderate solution and present suitable suggestions for the opposition, then this will mean the possibility of an end to the war. What would be left are terrorist groups, which are possible to deter if there is popular support of the political solution.

We cannot affirm the direction that events will take in the weeks to come but there is no doubt that for now, Russia – and neither Washington nor Iran – gets to decide as it is capable of pushing things toward resumption of fighting or ending the war.

I do not expect that even Iran – despite its extreme concern over the Syrian regime – desires the war to continue because of the costs involved at the domestic and foreign levels. Iran is aware that it has failed to bring the war to a closure and this has forced it to rely upon Russia’s power. The regime in Tehran will realize that returning with half a victory is better than resuming fighting in the midst of a region that’s completely hostile to it.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on December 29, 2016.
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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.