Momentum is the theme chosen for the second Vienna meeting to address the Syrian crisis. With the participation of the five U.N. Security Council permanent member states, major regional powers, and with Russian-American leadership that the two countries’ top diplomats, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, expect would lead them to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize within 18 months. This timetable was proposed by Moscow to accompany a timetable of military achievements where ISIS and the Nusra Front, and other groups to be designated as terrorist groups, would be crushed; and another political timetable for reforms, constitutional amendments, and reconfiguration of the regime in Syria culminating with presidential elections.
One of the creative ideas for getting President Bashar al-Assad to step down is convincing or forcing him not to run in the presidential election, which would solve the Assad Knot. However, the “knots” are not confined to the man at this juncture, and include two important obstacles that the Vienna process will address: One, deciding who is a terrorist and who is an oppositionist in Syria. Two, the fate of foreign forces fighting in Syria at present, and the timetable for their withdrawal from Syrian territories.
This includes not only Russian troops, but also Iranian troops and Iranian-backed proxies and militias.
The most important “knot” lies in the top priorities on the ground for both Russia and the United States: Crushing ISIS, al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates. To be sure, Moscow does not care who it will forge an alliance with to fight these terrorist groups, while Washington rejects an alliance with groups it designates as terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias supporting Assad in Syria.
The problem, then, is Iranian somewhat. But given the détente between Washington and Tehran, it is possible to resolve this problem, and both Lavrov and Kerry would like to see it happen. However, the Iranian knot is the subject of deep contention with the Arab leaders, which Moscow and Washington need to ensure the success of the Vienna process and victory against terrorism in Syria.
The downing of the Russian plane over Sinai allegedly by ISIS-affiliated groups will be present as an issue in Vienna II and subsequent rounds. Russia has placed itself at the forefront of this war, and the downing of the plane has woken Russia up to the danger this entails. The Russian public may decide that President Putin has no right to decide to lead the war on terror, inviting retaliation against Russian interests possibly even on Russian soil, and decide to oppose his policies.
Putin echoing Bush?
The Russian public may decide instead that Putin’s logic echoes the logic of former U.S. President George W. Bush during his war on Iraq, stating: We fight them there so we do not have to fight them here, in Russian cities. Now, However, there is no choice but to admit that revenge against Russian policy in Syria came swiftly, and that Moscow has decided to move ahead with the necessary political concession to consolidate its gains on the ground in the war on terror.
There is momentum in Vienna that deserves encouragement and cautious optimism
Logically, this means that the Free Syrian Army and similar Syrian opposition factions, which represent the boots on the ground, are an indispensable Russian need that Moscow cannot do without. For one thing, the regime army cannot by itself fulfill the required role. But while there are no differences – as it is clear – over arrangements related to preserving the foundations of the regime, Moscow could soon understand that it must resolve the “Assad Knot” sooner than it expects in order to reach a solution.
If it elects not to do so, this could undermine its current push.
Moscow will not declare or admit to any arrangements, understandings, or creative ideas related to Assad’s fate, neither in Vienna nor in Sochi. While there might be some “creative understandings” taking place, it will be important for public statements to continue to suggest there are differences to keep the agreements secret.
High-level Gulf visits to Sochi and Moscow indicate trust between the two sides has not been destroyed, and that there are efforts to mend if not strengthen Gulf-Russian relations at all levels. It is seems the Russian intervention in Syria was not a good enough cause for the Gulf states to postpone or cancel visits to Russia, most recently a visit by Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and the planned visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, before the end of the year.
The strategy of the Gulf states to engage with Russia is not random. It is the result of the relative erosion in traditional Gulf-American relations resulting from the demarche led by the Obama administration towards Tehran in parallel with his snubs to the Gulf allies. The alliance between Moscow and Tehran, especially in Syria, has not hindered Gulf leaders from engaging with Russia, despite the history of Gulf resentment over Russian-Iranian support for the Assad regime over the past five years.
In part, the Gulf engagement with Russia could be motivated by a Gulf hope this would cause some distance between Moscow and Tehran. Perhaps Washington even encourages Gulf-Russian rapprochement, because it is crucial for its own rapprochement with Russia and Iran. The Gulf countries may have also perhaps realized that their options boil down to boycotting to protest the new relationship between Washington, Moscow, and Tehran, or work with the new reality and its requirements, and chose the second option.
What is happening now in Vienna practically is that an international-regional group has been formed to discuss the Syrian issue and formulate solutions.
When former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan took over as U.N. envoy to Syria, he sought to find common ground between the five permanent members of the Security Council. He was succeeded by the U.N.-Arab Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who sought American-Russian common ground as the essential foundation for any solution in Syria. They both encouraged repeatedly for Iran to be included in the negotiations on Syria’s future, but Saudi Arabia was opposed to this as it believed it would legitimize Iran’s role Syria.
Current Envoy Staffan de Mistura sees his mission today as facilitative rather than one of leadership. De Mistura says his job is to ensure Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran sit at the table to produce a political process, and to then implement the points, not to impose a particular solution. This is the momentum produced by the first Vienna meeting in his view, and upon which the international community must build with support from the U.N. Security Council.
China, which has traditionally taken the back seat on anything related to Syria in the Security Council, letting Russia lead and refraining from taking any position, has suddenly decided through its U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi to come to the forefront after de Mistura’s closed briefing to Security Council members. Liu Jieyi made an unprecedented appearance to speak to the press, stressing the need for synergizing international efforts in the fight against terrorism in Syria, and welcoming the Vienna meeting. Jieyi stressed China will continue to support the bilateral ministerial meeting to push for a negotiated settlement.
In the closed session, the Chinese envoy was keen to highlight China’s four-point position: Pushing for a ceasefire to improve humanitarian conditions; committing to a political solution through a Syrian-led process; supporting the U.N. role as a dialogue channel and in elections; and strengthening international cooperation to fight ISIS.
The members of the U.N. Security Council and countries like Japan are clamoring to join the Vienna meeting. Vienna has become a substitute to the Security Council in New York and to the Geneva process launched thanks to Kofi Annan. There is now an impression that Vienna is a capital of action and achievement, rather than rhetoric and empty statements.
De Mistura told U.N. Security Council members in the closed session that the Vienna process is starting from an essential common point agreed upon, namely, fighting terrorism as an urgent priority, while stressing that this would only be effective if accompanied by a parallel political process with a political horizon.
De Mistura said the main function of the U.N. according to the Vienna vision is helping to draft the constitution, assisting in elections, and developing the conditions for ceasefire. He said that the international support group will seek to address differences regarding the classification of who is terrorist and who counts as opposition.
During his meeting with the press, de Mistura refused to declare his position on the criteria for identifying foreign terrorists, especially since Iran and Hezbollah have deployed fighters in Syria. Instead, he said his mission is to facilitate and not lead negotiations. “[We are] not the ones imposing a certain formula. We have tried for four years and it didn’t work. Now it’s time for the countries to actually pick up those challenges,” he said.
Iran is sitting at the table of challenges in Vienna alongside Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and the United States.
These are the main powers that are working to shape Syria’s future, in the absence of both the Syrian government and opposition. The Saudi-Iranian relationship is a main knot, however, because it does not only affect Syria, but also Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
There are two opinions when it comes to Iran’s participation in the negotiations on Syria’s future: One that says Iran will be more responsible and more accountable. This view argues Iran will be a clear player and will be required to prove that it is using its contacts and militias constructively in the context of the international consensus on crushing ISIS and on political transition in Syria.
The other view holds that bringing Iran to the table is a de facto endorsement of Russian proposals based on giving absolute priority to crushing terrorism by any means, including by rehabilitating pro-Iranian militias as legitimate partners in the war and refraining from designating them as terrorist groups. The proponents of this view want explanations about what the Islamic Republic of Iran hopes to achieve in Syria in the future, and the extent of American-Russian bilateral acceptance of Iranian ambitions in Syria.
At this juncture, Iran appears committed to Bashar al-Assad as part of its realignment in the negotiations over Syria’s future. Perhaps Assad will provide the space for the coming concessions, but the price for Tehran will depend on the sharing of influence and securing interests in Syria.
There is no sign of a deal in Vienna over partitioning Syria, and there is a public insistence on the unity of its territory. There is nothing to suggest Saudi-Iranian relations will witness an explosion; otherwise, their two foreign ministers would not be returning to the negotiating table in Vienna.
The flavor of trade-offs indicates the United States and Russia are insisting that Yemen curb its appetite in Yemen. However, there is indication any side is willing to put pressure on Tehran, for example by challenging the legitimacy of its military presence in Syria which is violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions issued under Chapter VII of the Charter.
There is momentum in Vienna that deserves encouragement and cautious optimism. However, the challenges remain great despite progress resulting from the discussion of timetables, figures, and names. The caution is due because the word process per se has the ability to anesthetize using large promises, similar to what happened with the Middle East peace process. That process too had momentum, but today is it buried under the rubble of practical impossibility. So the hope remains in Vienna that it will be overcome what happened in Madrid and Oslo before them with the Palestinian peace process.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 13, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy.