This article was published in Arab News on November 28, 2017.
Syria: From battlefield to negotiation table
The Syrian crisis is moving slowly from the battlefield to the negotiation table. It started with unrelenting attacks on Daesh targets. Progress was slow but steady. Daesh now seems to have been largely crippled, even in places that were considered its strongholds. Its total elimination is difficult because it has supporters among civilians who embrace the way of life that it was trying to promote.
There is a huge difference between the number of Daesh fighters who wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq and those who have been killed, captured or have surrendered. The remainder must have melted into the civilian population and are living under a different identity: In other words, they are dormant cells. Dozens, if not hundreds, must have returned home to Western countries. They will carry with them other versions of the atrocities committed in the Middle East. This has already started in the form of attacks with trucks or other vehicles in densely populated urban centers.
The major actor in the political process is Russia. It acted vigorously in the battlefields but it acts almost with the same vigor in the negotiation process. It has spearheaded the Astana process, which led to the creation of “deconfliction” zones (where US and Russian air forces aim not to shoot at each other while they conduct overlapping air campaigns in Syria). This method proved to be more efficient than many other initiatives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Bashar Assad to Sochi. After the meeting, he talked on the telephone with US President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Jordan’s King Abdallah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Last week, Putin held a trilateral summit with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani. He is trying to convene a Congress of Syrian People (CSP) in Sochi, where he will aim to bring together as many actors as possible. In the press conference after the summit, he said, with carefully chosen words, that he would like to bring together all groups operating “in Syria.” It is not clear whether the representatives of the opposition that are active “outside Syria” will also be invited.
Turkey opposed the invitation to the CSP of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which it considers a branch of the PKK terrorist organization that it has been fighting for decades.
The major actor in the political process is Russia. It acted vigorously in the battlefields and is doing so with almost the same vigor in the negotiation process.
During the press conference after the trilateral Sochi summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put Ankara’s objection on record: “Nobody should expect Turkey to work under the same roof with a terrorist organization.” One can only hope that other major actors will not raise similar objections to the participation of opposition factions that Turkey considers as moderate opposition but that other countries consider “terrorist organizations.”
On his way back from Sochi, Erdogan told Turkish journalists that Putin intimated to him that Assad is also opposed to the Kurdish presence at the negotiation table. This attitude of Assad brings him one step closer to Turkey’s position on the Kurdish issue.
Erdogan was not indifferent to this. Asked about whether Turkey could cooperate with Assad on the Kurdish issue, he said: “In politics the doors have to be always kept open.”
Putin said at the end of the trilateral summit that “the CSP will look at the key issues on Syria’s national agenda. The first thing is to draw up a framework for the future structure of the state, the adoption of the future constitution and, on the basis of that, the holding of elections under UN supervision.”
An important meeting was held last Thursday in Riyadh, at the invitation of the Saudi government, to form a united front both in the UN-sponsored meeting this week in Geneva and in the meeting of the CSP to be convened by Russia in Sochi at a date yet to be determined.
The Riyadh meeting brought together about 140 opponents of the Syrian regime, including Cairo and Moscow-based opposition groups, as well as the Istanbul-based National Coalition and independent figures. Several leading opponents declined to participate, complaining about the opposition’s inability to agree on the bases and principles of their stance.
High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader and former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab resigned his post before the meeting of the HNC, saying that there were “attempts to lower the ceiling of the revolution and prolong the regime.”
A sustained effort will be needed to reconcile the general attitude of the opposition with the Russian attitude — that has no objection to the continuation of Assad, at least during the transition period — and more so with the Iranian attitude, which wants to keep Assad in power.