President Putin has made it clear that in Syria «we cannot take on and have never taken on unnecessary commitments». During an interview on the Voskresny Vecher («Sunday Night») program on the Rossiya 1 channel, Vladimir Putin reiterated that «our job is to stabilize the legitimate government and to create an environment conducive to pursuing political compromise». Russia is obliged to do this militarily, by providing air assistance to the Syrian government forces fighting on the ground.
US President Barack Obama acknowledges that events in Syria are creating huge problems for America’s partners and allies in the region and in Europe. Military intervention is not a silver bullet, claims Obama, who has been wagering on Assad’s forcible ouster throughout the many years of the Syrian civil war. He himself is not seeking political compromise at present. In the US they joke that «in Syria, Putin’s eating Obama’s lunch…»
While the Obama administration is arguing about how to help their partners who have been hit by Russian air strikes, Moscow has moved to revive a «contact group» on Syria, consisting of influential outside players. With UN approval, that group, which includes Russia, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, might meet in October. That announcement was made by Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa.
Moscow has taken the first step in this direction. Vladimir Putin held a meeting in Sochi with Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which put Washington on edge – after all, no one has shown any interest in meeting with the American leader since the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces operation began in Syria. And that is certainly not because either Turkey or Saudi Arabia have moved closer to Russia on the Syrian issue. Both countries have condemned Moscow’s actions and have not budged from their earlier positions. The Saudi kingdom’s minister of foreign affairs, Adel Al-Jubeir, has stated that Riyadh is ready for a dialog with the Kremlin, but that in the Saudis’ opinion, the Assad regime in Syria has no future. But that’s not the view in Moscow, where they have proposed that any decisions about the future of the country be left to the Syrian people.
However, this exchange of opinions is useful in and of itself, even if only to understand who it is that Riyadh is so insistent on supporting there.
The «Contact Group» on Syria was established in late August 2012, at the initiative of the Egyptian president. That delegation includes the most significant regional powers: Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The first three countries on that list supported the armed Syrian opposition at that time, so the inclusion of Iran could be considered a significant event. Tehran has rejected the calls of the group’s other members for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. But the structure of the Contact Group did not work back then – the US objected to contacts between its allies and Iran, since Washington had staked its bets on regime change in Damascus. But now the situation has changed in many ways.
First of all, Tehran is emerging from its international isolation and everyone, even the US, must acknowledge the wisdom of having Iran involved in the resolution of the Syrian issue. Second, the crisis about the use of chemical weapons in Syria did not become a pretext for armed intervention by the US. Moscow stepped in vigorously and prevented that scenario – which had the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia – from playing out. That turn of events forced Ankara and Riyadh to realize that America’s era of absolute dominance in the Middle East was coming to an end. Then the Islamic State (IS), which by 2014 had become the most prominent force battling Assad in the region, broke away from American control and its detachments moved into Iraq where they captured large swathes of that country. This was followed by the proclamation of the «Caliphate», the borders of which encompassed part of Syria.
The Americans, having declared their war on terror, launched air strikes over Syria without UN authorization or the consent of Damascus. All of Assad’s opponents wanted to join them – but just in Syria, not Iraq. However, direct attacks on government forces never materialized. The situation began to change radically only after Sept. 30, when Russia, having secured Iran’s support, launched an air operation over Syria. For the first time the Syrian armed opposition took some serious punches.
This is where a new dialog must begin, using the format of this Contact Group. And it is important to understand the subject of that dialog. Proceeding further, based on the premise that Russia has confronted the US with a geopolitical challenge in Syria, there is a risk that the negotiations will never get off the ground. Misguided ambitions must be renounced for the sake of peace in Syria. Moscow is advocating that all outside actors compromise on their goals for launching a nationwide dialog in Syria. Thus, in addition to everything else, there needs to be an end to the inapt arguments about Russia’s priorities in its relations with Shi’ite Tehran and Sunni Riyadh. President Putin offered an answer, noting that «[t]his is a false message, a false thesis. In fact, we make no distinction between Shia and Sunni… We definitely do not want to get involved in any sort of interreligious conflict in Syria».
Unlike Washington, which itself does not understand which factions of the Syrian opposition it is supporting, Riyadh wields genuine influence over the balance of power in Syria. The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War has drafted a report on the state of affairs within the Syrian opposition. According to the report, there are over 40 different groups working within the ranks of the armed opposition just in the Governorate of Aleppo where Russian aircraft are operating.
The actual combat capabilities of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are supported, respectively, by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Plus, the Muslim Brotherhood is also fighting inside the Governorate of Aleppo. But the opposition faction that the United States is presenting as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is also awash in less familiar names. There one can find units under the command of officers who have deserted from the Syrian army, as well as the Pakistani Taliban, Lebanese Salafists, and also criminal gangs engaged in drug trafficking and the illegal ferrying of Syrian refugees to Europe. In the US, these are called «affiliated rebel groups,» but it is very difficult to determine with whom they are affiliated. If the Free Syrian Army is more than just a phantom organization, then what is it exactly?
In order to coordinate support in Syria for the various armed opposition groups, the Americans created the joint military operations command. The plans were for two of its offices, in Turkey and Jordan, to act as a liaison with the opposition in northern and southern Syria. The American allies’ collaborative work with this command is not yet evident, as neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia have surrendered their protégés to Washington’s control. So this means that Russia will have to continue to look for ways to encourage Riyadh and Ankara to become part of the diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis.