People walk past a picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Bab Sharqi entrance, near the Jobar district of Damascus, Syria, January 5, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
People walk past a picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Bab Sharqi entrance, near the Jobar district of Damascus, Syria, January 5, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

In a delightful twist of irony, Russia chose the very last working day of the Barack Obama administration in Washington before heading for the exit door of the White House to hand over the communication inviting US participation in the Syrian peace talks slated for January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Any whichever way one looks at it, it is a diplomatic snub of the highest grade. The invitation was transmitted through the American embassy in Moscow, the routine diplomatic channel, instead of at the State Department in Washington.

The Russian move certainly took into account that any decision on the US participation in the Astana talks will not be within the purview of the Obama administration. To be sure, care has been taken to see that the Obama administration will not play mischief.

More important, it gives the incoming Donald Trump administration the option to decide on the first step toward engaging with Russia.

Moscow openly expressed the hope in advance that the Trump administration would decide to accept the invite. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday even before the invitation was extended to Washington:

We hope the new US administration will accept this invitation and will be represented at this meeting (in Astana) at any expert level it considers appropriate. This could be the first official contact during which we will be able to discuss a more effective way to fight terrorism in Syria.

He added that “there is a good chance we can invigorate” that the Russian-American mechanism co-chairing the processes begun by the International Syria Crisis Group (ISCG). The decision by the UN special envoy Steffan de Mistura to attend the talks in Astana next Monday also points in the direction of the moribund ISCG coming alive.

Moscow is keeping the format of the Astana talks flexible, depending on the level of US participation. For the present, the talks are expected to be at expert-level. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Moscow hinted on Thursday that while as of now the talks are scheduled for January 23, “if there are any changes,” an announcement will be made. Clearly, all eyes are on Trump’s decision.

Tehran has voiced opposition to the US participation but this must be taken to mean as grandstanding before the domestic audience. Moscow would have sent out the invite to the US in the first instance only in consultation with the Iranian government.

Conceivably, Iran will look forward to displaying itself at the Astana talks as a responsible regional power in full view of Trump’s envoys, should they choose to participate.

The signs are that the Astana talks will be substantive. The ceasefire announced last month is holding by and large and a key agenda item at Astana will be the consolidation of the ceasefire regime all across Syria.

Moscow has taken care to ensure that the Syrian opposition figures who are based outside Syria and are on the payroll of the Gulf Arab countries, have been reduced to a secondary role.

In their place, the field commanders of the various groups have emerged as the key protagonists at the peace table, who will directly participate in the drafting of a new constitution, holding of a referendum and the subsequent elections. Lavrov explained as follows:

We believe that field commanders must participate in this process as full members. I think that the process must not be limited to the groups that signed the ceasefire agreement on December 29. All other armed groups willing to join the ceasefire should have the opportunity to do so. We have received appeals from several groups that are not parties to these agreements but are willing to join them. I consider this a healthy process that can help involve those who really control the situation [on the ground] in the talks.

The main difference is that it (Astana) will be a meeting of people who use weapons against each other on the ground and control certain areas of the Syrian Arab Republic. Until recently, the process…involved only the political opposition. As it turned out, most of these political oppositionists do not have any influence on the ground and do not control those who are conquering territories.

This must be taken to mean that a high degree of cooperation and coordination between the Russian and Turkish intelligence has gone into the strategic planning of the Astana talks.

Moscow would have reason to feel gratified over Turkey’s palpable change of course in Syria. This would explain the Russian willingness to extend air support to the Turkish military operations in northern Syria. We may see it even as a reciprocal gesture by Moscow.

Lavrov accused “some western countries that now feel side-lined” (read Obama administration) as having tried to undermine the Astana talks. Therefore, it is, in hindsight, a masterstroke that Moscow and Ankara have decided to sidestep the proxy elements of Washington and its allies and instead deal directly with the free-wheeling field commanders who are facing defeat and get them to talk directly with the Syrian government and cut a deal.

Indeed, Moscow has kept the door wide open for virtually all and any opposition field commanders to get into the peace process – with the exception of the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, of course. This conciliatory spirit has persuaded even a radical group such as Jaish al-Islam to peep into the peace tent in Astana.

The only ‘pre-condition’ is that the groups that are willing to sign up on the ceasefire deal are welcome to the peace table. The Russian presidential envoy and deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov has been quoted as saying on Thursday, “We hope that many other groups, particularly those operating in southern Syria, will join the agreements and take steps to implement them.”

Bogdanov stressed Turkey’s key role in ensuring optimal participation by the field commanders. The flexible tactic and the robust Russian-Turkish understanding and working relationship at the diplomatic, military and intelligence level to reach out to the field commanders and woo them to bid farewell to arms have virtually reduced Saudi Arabia and Qatar as mere onlookers.

No doubt, the bottom line is that Moscow is pinning high hopes on the Trump administration to reverse the US policies of the recent past and instead enter into effective cooperation with Russia on Syria and other counter-terrorism issues.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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