By the end of this year, Syria will be free of Islamic State, apart from small pockets that will disappear with time. Russian President Vladimir Putin will have achieved what he set out to with his Syria intervention back in September 2015: to rid the country of armed jihadist groups, while empowering his allies in Damascus.
This month alone, major progress has been achieved, as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces overran al-Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State, and government troops made steady progress on two other cities along the Euphrates River: Deir ez-Zour and al-Mayadeen. It is only a matter of time before they also retake the last standing ISIS stronghold of Albukamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
For two years, Russian officials have been saying that no sustainable political solution can be achieved so long as al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists dot the Syrian landscape. Counter-terrorism came first for the Kremlin, politics second. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently said, however, that with the demise of ISIS, his country’s military operation in Syria “is about to be completed.” In other words, it’s time for a serious political process, one that either complements the ongoing but stalled UN-backed Geneva talks, or replaces them altogether.
Moscow was never too thrilled with the Geneva process, seeing it as the brainchild of former US Secretary of State John Kerry. It was muscled into accepting its terms two years ago – in different times, with different regional and international actors. The Russians are now convinced that Donald Trump is also un-interested in Geneva — in fact, that he is un-interested in Syria’s entire political process.
Since coming to power in January, Trump has focused on three objectives only: eradicating ISIS; empowering the Kurds – who he believes were vital in the war on terror; and ejecting Iran from the Syrian battlefield. Objectives 1 and 2 have more or less been achieved, shifting Trump’s Syria attention to Iran. That gives Putin all the space needed to hammer out a political endgame for Syria – one tailor-made to his liking.
He is already half-way there. The Astana talks initiated in May were the Russian president’s brainchild. They whisked the Syrian problem out from under the UN umbrella, squeezing several stakeholders out of the political process: namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, Britain and the US.
Throughout all rounds of the Astana talks, the Americans have been only symbolically present, always at a junior level, surrendering to Putin’s vision for Syria. The process aimed at achieving local ceasefires throughout the country and carving out the now famous “de-conflict zones” around Damascus, Homs, Idlib, and Daraa in the Syrian south.
That agreement, however, has a present tenure of just six months, renewable by mutual consent of Syria’s opposing sides and the regional guarantors behind them: Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The next round of Astana talks, aimed at discussing the parameters of the four de-conflict zones, will take place in the Kazakhstan capital on October 30-31. One week later, Moscow aims to host a mini-conference at its military base in Hmeimeem, in Syria’s western coastal city of Latakia, creating a parallel track to Geneva.
Russian organizers are aiming for a high-profile media event with no UN sponsorship and hope to follow it with a larger “national dialogue” conference in January, to be held at Damascus International Airport.
Turkey has already abandoned its plans for regime change in Damascus, and although still committed to it in rhetoric at least, neither France nor Britain is willing to invest any money or energy in that direction, seeing it as fruitless in light of Russian hard power and US indifference
Moscow hopes to attract over 1,000 delegates from the Syrian Opposition to Latakia, with guarantees they will not be arrested. Also earmarked to attend are the local councils formed by the “de-conflict zones,” Kurdish politicians operating in northern Syria, members of the the Syrian opposition’s Moscow Platform, and military leaders who took part in the Astana talks. The only component of the opposition to be dropped is the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
All sides will have to decide on a power-sharing formula and a new constitution, based on a draft charter put forward earlier this year by Russian lawmakers. They are also likely to set the dates for new parliamentary elections, keeping a scheduled July 2021 presidential race in mind.
If Moscow gets its way, Geneva will slowly fizzle out – unless it is somehow incorporated into the conference at Damascus Airport. For that to happen, the Saudi-backed opposition bloc in Geneva will have to lower its expectations and accept power-sharing under Russian auspices as the only solution currently on the table for Syria.
Turkey has already abandoned its plans for regime change in Damascus, and although still committed to it in rhetoric at least, neither France nor Britain is willing to invest any money or energy in that direction, seeing it as fruitless in light of Russian hard power and US indifference. That leaves the anti-regime camp supported only by Saidi Arabia, a country that is also presently building bridges with the Kremlin following King Salman’s visit to Moscow earlier in October.