A meeting was held in Vienna on Oct. 23 between the US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to discuss the Syria crisis — more specifically the role of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
The first meeting did not achieve much. No one was expecting a miracle in this first round. They agreed they needed further consultation and decided to hold another session on Oct. 30, again in Vienna, this time with the participation of 13 additional countries. The positive side of the meeting was portrayed more than the negative side. There was constructive ambiguity in the statements made after the second Vienna meeting by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. They both said the process will continue and that they will meet again in two weeks’ time. This is a sign that the Geneva process for Syria is now being substituted by the Vienna process.
There is no sign that Iran and Russia have given up their position that Assad should not be barred from running in the presidential election. Neither have Turkey and Saudi Arabia given up their position on not letting Assad run in the election. The other countries do not have a strong position like these four countries. The constructive ambiguity avoids this controversy and ignores this latent disagreement. This is a pragmatic approach. The participating countries can cross that bridge when they get there. Insistence on this issue could hamper the cease-fire and the political dialogue. The constructive ambiguity of course does not guarantee ultimate success, but at least it postpones the possible collapse of the efforts at the initial stage.
The country whose absence was most noticeable during the first meeting was Iran, because it is very much present in the Syrian theater. Its forces are fighting feverishly and efficiently on the side of the regime. The Lebanese Hezbollah that has close ties with Iran is also fighting on the same side. Therefore, Iran has the means to undo any plan of action to be drawn up in its absence or against its will.
The Vienna process is moving toward agreeing on a cease-fire and initiating a political dialogue. The cease-fire will not be valid in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some of the countless opposition factions may not be prepared to accept a cease-fire, but if the countries in the Vienna process demonstrate resolve, the different factions may be forced to accept it.
The addition of Iran to the countries participating in the Vienna process will tilt the balance against the combined Turkish-Saudi position. Turkey is likely to face more difficult dilemmas than many other participating countries because its options are more limited than the others. The importance of Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis is widely acknowledged, but if Turkey overplays its cards, its isolation in the Syrian crisis may continue to grow.
Jordan has made a step to adjust its Syrian policy to the realities on the ground after Russia stepped in. Lavrov announced that the two countries had decided to establish a coordination center in Jordan to monitor the cooperation between them.
Turkey is, of course, not in a position to take a similar step with Russia because their positions are far apart, but it may try to eliminate its divergences from the other stakeholders in the Syrian crisis. An area where there are chances of creating common ground is Turkey’s policy on the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria. Turkey is the only country that considers the YPG a terrorist organization. The US announced on Oct. 30 it will send a “few dozen” non-combatant soldiers to northern Syria. This means the US is going to cooperate with the PYD/YPG or any other group where the Syrian Kurds will be the main beneficiary. Russia and Western countries regard Syrian Kurds as a reliable partner. Turkey has to adjust its policy to the realities on the ground instead of expecting all the other countries to change their stance and come closer to Turkey’s position.