Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Syria’s Bashar Assad in Sochi on Monday wasn’t a consultation, it was the presentation of the political program that Moscow intends to carry out in the weeks to come.
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Two principles were “agreed” in the meeting: a declaration of the final stage of negotiations and the end of the military phase of the civil war in Syria. As part of the implementation of these principles, the presidents of Turkey and Iran were summoned to Russia on Wednesday to meet with Putin, and the main Syrian opposition groups convened in Riyadh.
Both events were preceded by a flurry of phone conversations that Putin held with the Saudi leadership (officially, with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman; in practice, with his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and U.S. President Donald Trump, in addition to briefing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Russian plan.
The next step will likely to be to convene all of the parties to the conflict — representatives of the militias and the Syrian regime — to an additional meeting in Russia. It will be followed by another round of peace talks in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations, which will formally assume sponsorship of the process and give the agreements reached an international stamp of approval.
Russia did its homework, reaching a number of crucial understandings. The first concerns the future of Assad, who will presumably remain president until elections are held or a caretaker government is formed to draw up a new constitution (the principles of which have already been formulated in Moscow). After that, the “people will elect its leadership,” a principle Trump agreed to three weeks ago.
Saudi Arabia has delicately withdrawn its opposition to Assad’s remaining in office, but continues to insist that Russia take action to reduce Iranian interference in Syria. It is not clear whether Tehran accepted this demand, but if the parties accept that the military phase of the conflict is over and Russia begins withdrawing its forces from Syria, Iran might as well — not immediately, but only after security arrangements are in place for all areas, after which a nationwide cease-fire could be declared.
Much depends on whatever accords are reached at the meeting of rebel organizations in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. That summit got off on the wrong foot after some organizations canceled over Assad’s being allowed to remain in power.
Russia blasted the no-show groups as supporters of terrorism and obstacles to peace, but these organizations are still capable of frustrating diplomatic accords and violating cease-fires in the areas they control.
Turkey also has demands, the main one being for the United States to end its support for Kurdish rebel organizations in Syria. Ankara, which is implementing a “de-escalation zone” in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, has asked Russia to let it assume control of the city of Afrin, currently controlled by Kurdish rebels, and include it in the safety zone. Moscow fears that its acquiescence could induce the Kurdish rebels to walk away from the negotiations, blocking a comprehensive solution.
Russia wants a unified Syrian state, not a federated state with autonomous Kurdish subdivisions. That puts Moscow in a bind, between Kurdish demands for autonomy and Turkey threats to the integrity of the northern safety zone.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia sponsors a large group of rebel organizations in the “rebel coalition” and is straining to advance its own demand that Iran be blocked from continuing to take control over Syria. Pursuant to this endeavor, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, in order to pull the rug from under the feet of Iran and Hezbollah by paralyzing Lebanon politically and economically. But there was no plan for the eventuality that Iran and Hezbollah would dig in their heels and give up on Hariri, who had given Hezbollah diplomatic and military legitimacy to do whatever it pleased in Lebanon.
The developments in the last two days attest, meanwhile, that the Saudi ploy may work, to some degree at least. Hezbollah announced that it really would like Hariri to stay on; President Michel Aoun has not yet accepted Hariri’s resignation; French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with Hariri, sent a high-level delegation to try to reach accords; Hariri himself said he was suspending his resignation.
Hezbollah now holds the key. It must decide whether to accept the Saudi demand, as conveyed by Hariri, and withdraw its forces from Syria, Yemen and Iraq. That is the essence of Hariri’s stated policy of “focusing on ourselves,” that is, not interfering in other countries’ affairs. According to reports from Lebanon, Hezbollah might agree to withdraw its forces from Yemen and Iraq, but not from Syria, realizing its promise to compromise with Hariri.
The question is whether Riyadh will settle for these concessions or press its demand for Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria. Paradoxically, the Saudi move in Lebanon, which is designed to twist the arms of Hezbollah and Iran, gives Hezbollah veto power over the anticipated arrangements in Syria, and in Lebanon, of course. Once again, Russia must thread the needle between placating Iran, its declared ally of Russia, and the need to obtain Arab and international legitimacy for any political deal in Syria, which requires Saudi support.
Whatever decision is made will be critical for Israel. The implosion of negotiations over Syria could actually increase the power of Hezbollah and Iran, against which Russia lacks leverage. But a political solution would require making concessions to Iran and Hezbollah in order to obtain their support. Israel could find itself without a superpower ally that could prevent this development.