On the morning of September's summit in New York between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, nine foreign ministers of the Friends of Syria Group’s "hard core" met to discuss the future of President Bashar al-Assad. The talks centered around the issue of whether Assad could be part of a transitional period, with European and regional states showing flexibility towards the concept, on the condition of specifying the "time and date" of the president’s departure.
US Secretary of State John Kerry assured those at the meeting that following talks between Presidents Obama and Putin, he would return with a specific date for the departure of Assad. Surprised by the scale of the Russian military intervention in Syria, Kerry returned empty-handed when he met with the same ministers in New York to brief them on the results of the US-Russian negotiations.
Moscow no longer hides its intentions in Syria. Its troops entered the conflict to prevent the collapse of regime forces, to stop the advance of opposition fighters and Islamic factions towards Assad’s stronghold on the coast, to protect Damascus from falling in the hands of ISIS and, finally, to strengthen Russia’s influence in the Middle East, using Syria as a platform for establishing a new international order – an order formed from wounded countries and deadly identities.
Russia’s military intervention has complicated Washington’s already thorny relationship with Moscow, reinforcing divisions within the US administration over how to deal with the Russian challenge. But this division has remained doomed by Obama's hesitant character and his destructive miscalculations, mistaken into believing a US military withdrawal from the Middle East, the normalization of relations with Cuba, the Iranian nuclear deal and the improvement of domestic economy would be a sufficient legacy for the outgoing administration.
Before his term expires, Obama is racing to avoid being written into history as an idle witness to the largest humanitarian disaster in modern times, and is eager to launch a political process that mitigates these black smudges, and Putin, the "adventurer", is well aware of his desperation.
“[Russia is] not in the regime-change game. We are against interference in domestic conflicts,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently announced. While Russia and US negotiated the details around the fate of Assad and his role in the transitional phase, the frank debate reached a form of agreement and understanding: Let's agree on a mechanism. Let's focus on the process. Let's provide a platform for Syrians to decide. Let's think about the process away from the people. Let's design a platform that leads to a new political system and a new social contract in Syria.
This was part of the US-Russian-Saudi-Turkish negotiations in Vienna. The Syrian regime tried to exploit the international and regional cracks, proposing its vision of the solution: the formation of a national unity government, holding a Syrian-Syrian dialogue, political reforms, a "review" of the Constitution, and snap parliamentary elections. Iran also tried to propose its vision, consisting of a four-point initiative: an immediate cease-fire, a unity government, amending the constitution to guarantee the rights of minorities and internationally monitored elections.
But the Russian game was much larger than that of its allies, the Assad regime and Iran. Moscow was unsatisfied with both the formula of the international-regional “quartet”, and the tripartite plan with Washington and Riyadh, as Russia already saw its position was isolated. It rushed to reach an extended contact group, which included Iran, Egypt, Italy and other countries which shared a similar vision of a Russian solution. This is what happened at Vienna II.
According to participants, the meeting achieved its objectives: First, the US-Russian dialogue to ease the mistrust between the two parties. Lavrov took a back seat, leaving a larger leadership role to Kerry in an attempt to strengthen his position in the Obama administration. Second, regional powers sat face-to-face in the first meeting of its kind on a significant international-regional platform. Third, strengthening the mandate of the United Nations after the Security Council’s presidential statement last August, calling on UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and his team to gather all Syrian parties to: reconcile under the Geneva statement, ignore the "transitional body", and work for "representative and non-sectarian governance". Fourth, an agreement on the nine principles of the Vienna’s Syria solution.
The Vienna statement, consisting of nine principles, including: the unity of the Syrian state, its independence and its territorial integrity; the preservation of state institutions; a Syrian-led and owned political process to decide the country’s future; and participants, in coordination with the United Nations, would explore modalities for, and apply, a nation wide ceasefire in parallel with the resumption of the political process.
This importance of the declaration of these principles is that it includes an implicit recognition that some of these countries had been working against these conditions over the last five years. The repetition of the word "Syria" reflects the recognition of confiscating the Syrian opinion. Some countries had been working to "divide Syria" into regions, others were working on a Plan B to preserve their own interests away from a unified Syria, while some states established militias to weaken the military institutions in an attempt to create a shadow regime on the ruins of the existing one. Although attendees agreed that the political process would be led by Syrians, no Syrian was present at the meeting. A proxy political process to end a proxy war.
The most important challenge facing these countries is related to one other principle: the elections. There is no doubt that an agreement to hold elections under international supervision is essential. This is what most Syrians want, regardless of their political position. But what if Syrians voted against the will of the conflicting countries? Would the Russians accept a Syria that elects a candidate other than Assad, and would the US accept his reinstatement? Would Kerry, or his successor, accept the results of an election if a non-secular party came to power; after all, it was Kerry who specified the word "secular" in the Vienna statement?
The problem with these principles is that they were drafted and approved by the representatives of foreign states, each working towards a political process that reflects their own desired results. Which is why no single party has given up their own means of military pressure. Russia increased its raids, Iran increased the number of its military “advisors" in Syria, and the US and its allies increased their support to the armed opposition.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.