Russia Still Calling the Shots on Syria

BEIRUT — Concerns over an early collapse in the eighth round of the Syrian peace talks proved well founded, with the Syrian government delegation walking out December 1 after the opposition insisted on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure from office. It was not immediately clear if they would return after the weekend break.
However, efforts at unifying Syria’s belligerents have highlighted the differences among them, while diplomatic moves by Moscow appear to be determining Syria’s still uncertain future.
The Geneva talks, which aimed to bring members of the Syrian government delegation face-to-face with the newly elected and unified Syrian opposition, nearly fell apart early on when the Damascus delegation failed to show for the November 28 opening session. The Syrian government had threatened to boycott the talks over what it considered the hard-line conclusions of the earlier Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh. However, it seems it was convinced to attend at the last minute by its Russian allies.
Outside Assad’s future, the two sides were supposed to discuss three major topics: general principles of the political endgame, a new constitution and steps for elections without specifying whether they would be presidential or parliamentary.
As in past discussions, Assad’s future proved to be the source of division. The government delegation said it would only continue to take part in talks if the topic of Assad’s removal was stricken from the negotiating table, reminding attendees of the Syrian opposition’s prior commitment to attending talks “with no preconditions.”
While Assad’s removal was mentioned as a goal, rather than a precondition of the talks, that clearly was not enough for Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, which wanted it scrapped for the direct talks to proceed.
To that end, the precise semantics of the phrase “transition government” proved to be the subject of dispute, with the regime and its allies arguing that it refers to the body responsible for taking Syria from one constitution to another and from war to peace — power-sharing at best but not regime change.
Many in the opposition, however, want a transitional government body that would assume full presidential powers from Assad, claiming that this is what the international community had agreed upon in Geneva in 2012. Russian and Iranian diplomats scoff at the suggestion, claiming that Geneva 2012 is a thing of the past, arguing that no Syrians were present at that conference and that its resolutions were made in very different times.
Beyond Geneva, much of the direction of the Syrian situation appears to be being shaped in Moscow. At their recent meeting in Vietnam, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin laid the groundwork for a new chapter of understanding over Syria, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which makes no mention of Assad’s departure. They spoke of constitutional reforms rather than a new charter, followed by elections, acknowledging the Syrian president’s commitment to the political process.
This was music to the ears of regime officials in Damascus, who saw it as an ultimate surrender by the Americans to Putin’s vision of the Syrian endgame. Among Syrian officials, there is no intention of having presidential elections before 2021, when Assad’s third term in office would naturally expire, and they insist he is entitled to run for a fourth term, which would end in 2028.
The Riyadh-based opposition is furious with those dictates, claiming they are being muscled into surrendering by former allies such as Turkey and the United States, which appear to have abandoned hopes of regime change. Even the opposition’s patrons in Qatar, who were previously active in trying to bring down Assad, have stepped back from demanding his ouster, presumably being too busy with their own quarrels with Saudi Arabia.
At the recent Riyadh conference, all Qatar-backed opposition figures were squeezed out of both the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) and the Syrian National Coalition. So, too, were figures who insisted on Assad’s departure as a precondition for the transition period, such as former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab and ex-Culture Minister Riyad Naasan Agha.
Yet if they are forced to drop the goal of Assad’s departure from their agenda, with all preconditions as well, then it is likely that many in the newly elected central committee of the HNC will resign, like their predecessors.
Again, this would be warmly welcomed by Moscow, ahead of its mid-January talks. Ultimately, it wants to inject the opposition delegation to both Sochi and Geneva with Damascus-based opposition figures, who are generally perceived — at least by the Saudi-backed bloc — to be either regime created or regime friendly, potentially adding complications to a confusing process.

Sami Moubayed
is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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