Sun, 18 Dec 2016
In the aftermath of the Syrian army’s victory in Aleppo Russian President Putin has been going all out to achieve a peace settlement in Syria. To this end Russia’s Foreign and Defence Ministers spoke with their Turkish and Iranian counterparts yesterday, and Russia is inviting Iranian President Rouhani to visit Moscow. There is also talk of a tripartite summit involving Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss a Syrian settlement.
Putin is also talking about a ceasefire between the Syrian army and the non-Jihadi opposition, and the convening of a peace conference bringing together the Syrian government and the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition to be held in the Kazakh capital Astana.
What is striking about the latter proposal is that it appears to cut across the existing UN led peace conference, which is supposed to be taking place in Geneva, and which the US, the other Western powers, and the Gulf Arab states, have been attending. By contrast, at Saudi Arabia’s insistence, Iran’s role in the Geneva conference has been restricted even though Iran is a major player in the Syrian conflict. Putin’s proposed conference at Astana would by contrast place Iran centre stage, and appears to be intended to limit the negotiations to settle the conflict to the leading powers directly involved in the conflict in Syria: Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Putin’s proposal is a follow up on the negotiations that led to the final agreement for the withdrawal of the Jihadis in Aleppo, which in the end took place bilaterally between Russia and Turkey, cutting out the US.
It reflects Russian disillusion with the US and its negotiating stance over Syria. The Russians feel that they twice painstakingly negotiated deals with the US in February and September in Syria, with commitments from the US to separate ‘moderate rebels’ from the Jihadis and to withdraw the Jihadis from Aleppo, which the US in the end never honoured.
Beyond that it undoubtedly reflects Russian anger at the extraordinary campaign the US orchestrated against Russia in the run up to the Syrian army’s victory in Aleppo, in which the Russians were accused of war crimes even as they were trying to negotiate the withdrawal of Jihadi fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo.
In proposing a peace conference at Astana the Russians are also undoubtedly calculating that there is more prospect of a final agreement to end the war being agreed at this venue. The key reason why the Syrian conflict has gone on for so long is because whenever negotiations begin the Syrian opposition egged on by the Western powers and the Arab Gulf States insists as a precondition that President Assad must go. That is a demand the Russians and the Syrian government have repeatedly said is unacceptable, the making of which however ensures that the negotiations never get past first base.
By contrast President Putin has recently made known what he envisages that the outline of a Syrian peace settlement to be: first negotiations on the form of a new constitution, then internationally supervised elections in which President Assad is fully allowed to take part, with President Assad remaining President of Syria in his capacity of Syria’s legitimate and internationally recognised head of state until then.
Putin does however agree – as incidentally does President Assad – that members of the Syrian opposition should join a transitional government, which should govern Syria until the terms of the new constitution are agreed and the elections take place.
This conception for a settlement of the Syrian conflict remains however completely unacceptable to Western governments and the Gulf Arab states, who remain committed to their agenda of regime change in Syria. For this reason they are guaranteed to receive President Putin’s proposal for a peace conference in Astana with hostility and alarm. To get a sense of what their attitude is going to be, just consider the wording of this paragraph in an editorial in the British newspaper the Observer published today Sunday 18th December 2016:
The third aspect is diplomatic: namely, Russia’s bid to take charge of peace negotiations that until now have been overseen by the UN and largely driven by the US and the EU. Putin’s unilateral announcement of ceasefire talks in Kazakhstan later this month, co-sponsored by Turkey and excluding the western powers, illuminates his ambition to elevate Russia as the Middle East’s premier power-broker and sideline the US and Europe. By posing as peacemaker, Putin hopes to confound those who accuse him of barbarism and war crimes. In Putin’s old KGB playbook about ends and means, a Russian imposed settlement in Syria, however crude would justify his brutal and illegal methods. For the world at large, that is the most dangerous outcome of all.
To which one can only respond: why is a peace settlement in Syria, if successful and however ‘crude’ it may be, ‘for the world the most dangerous outcome of all’, simply because it has been brokered by Russia? Isn’t a successful peace settlement both for the world and for Syria the best outcome whoever brokers it?
Unfortunately the Observer’s editorial accurately represents the essential nihilism of Western policy throughout the Syrian war, and almost certainly reflects official thinking in London. Far better to have the Syrian war go on forever, and have Syria completely destroyed, than have a peace settlement in which the Western powers (‘the US and EU’) are excluded, which leaves President Assad in place – thereby defeating the objective of regime change – and which has been brokered by Russia.
Whether President Putin’s attempt to broker a peace settlement of the Syrian conflict with Turkey will in the end be successful remains to be seen. Much will depend on the cooperation of the hitherto erratic and unreliable Turkish government, which has up to now single-mindedly pursued its agenda for regime change in Syria.
If it does succeed, then barring a total reversal of policy by the soon to be President Trump, then on the evidence of the Observer editorial and the comments of Western officials and diplomats throughout the day, it will be no thanks to any help from the Western powers.