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Best of 2016: Putin’s Syria Plans Worry Both His Opponents and His Allies

The unpredictability of Russia's Syria policy troubles both its allies and enemies who worry the Kremlin may be selling empty promises ahead of upcoming peace talks in Geneva
Best of 2016: Putin’s Syria Plans Worry Both His Opponents and His Allies

Many have attempted to uncover what goes on inside President Vladimir Putin’s head regarding Syria. But these attempts are merely speculation, sharing more in common with the predictions of a crystal gazer, so it is logical that the regime's allies and the friends of the opposition will hold vastly different theories. Meanwhile, inside Syria there are major concerns about the Russian president’s plans and the bitterness of the medicine he is offering, for both his allies and opponents.

US Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Washington following talks in Moscow with Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Kerry stressed that the Kremlin is ready to complete the political operation as laid out by the International Syria Support Group, which suggested that representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition meet to negotiate over a six-month period in order to reach an agreement on a transitional government with full executive powers and a new constitution. UN-supervised elections are to take place eighteen months later, without the participation of Bashar al-Assad. Kerry told his allies in the government that he is convinced Russia is ready to contribute to an operation that will lead to the construction of a new political regime from the ruins of the old one, while also reforming Syria’s state institutions from its existing ones. It is important to remember that Kerry's conviction in the process is based on rationalism, but not on consensus.

Here comes the importance of the road map prepared by the Syrian team in Washington and leaked by the Associated Press. The road map includes the release of prisoners and the formation of a security committee and a transitional governance body that consists of both the regime and the opposition by April. By May, the Parliament should be dissolved and a temporary legislative council should be formed. At the same time, the UN Security Council should recognize the legitimacy of the transitional government and hold a conference for reconstruction and reconciliation. Between June and December, the transitional governing body should work on a new constitution to put to a referendum next January. In March, Assad must give up his authority and leave. The governance body should have full powers until the time of the parliamentary and presidential elections in August 2017, followed by the formation of a new government. Western and regional countries have already started to choose candidates who may lead and participate in this government.

Those who know the reality of the American plan say that it was announced prior to the Vienna process last October, and that its schedule is directly related to the beginning of the International Syria Support Group operation. The timing of the leaked plan is said to have targeted both the "anticipation administration" of the opposition (to let them know Assad will remain in power during the negotiations) and of the pro-regime side (to let them know that Assad will not stay indefinitely).

News of this plan was concerning for Damascus. The regime is comfortable with Russia’s military support and air cover that has continued since last September. However, concerns were heightened because the road map was formed directly after the US-Russian communications and was leaked following the adoption of resolution 2254. It was concerning because there is a belief that the Assad regime "cannot take this bitter medicine", and that some of its members are unable to see it is living with the "incurable sickness" that Syria suffers from.

It is because of this that Syria sent a number of security officials and political representatives to Moscow who, according to sources, returned to Damascus empty handed. Putin refused Damascus' reservations about the participation of the Syrian diaspora in the elections, and refused to withdraw the UN-supervised elections. It is said that a Russian-US deal was made here: Moscow agreed on elections supervised by the UN as long as the Syrians have the right to determine the future of Assad, and in return, Washington agreed that Assad would stay until the end of the transitional period and to leave his fate for the Syrians to determine.

The purpose for leaving the doors of Damascus wide open for Syrians to emigrate is to separate them from Syria. However, being able to vote and participate in the elections was not a part of the plan. Matters were further complicated for the regime when a survey secretly conducted inside regime-controlled areas showed that “support for Assad would reach no more than 25 percent in any upcoming elections." According to sources, the only solution for Damascus was to drown the negotiations in details and to set other priorities that would delay the main goal of the Geneva negotiations. The "humanitarian file" and the delivery of aid could help change the priorities, as happened at the Geneva II talks at the beginning of 2014, when rescuing Homs became the top priority. In addition to this, there are some reservations on the formation of the opposition delegation, especially considering it contains representatives of fighting factions inside Syria.

The regime’s plan for the upcoming Geneva conference includes prolonging the negotiations and focusing on one file – "fighting terrorism". Politically, the proposed offer is based on commencing negotiations without a cut-off time, to form a government of national unity under the current constitution that contains "patriotic opponents", where a new Syrian prime minister and the members of the government are sworn in by Assad. Since Assad is going to issue a decree to extend the mandate of the current Parliament that should dissolve in the middle of the year, the new government will begin work on a new constitution that the regime will have a large effect on, and that will be adopted after a referendum. Later, at the end of the transitional period there would be parliamentary elections. As for the presidential elections, they will be held in 2021, according to Damascus, but if expectations become more flexible they may happen in 2019. The alternative plan also includes the possibility that the new constitution could change the way of the presidential elections to be conducted inside the Syrian Parliament rather than general elections. Thus, there is little sense for the UN supervision of the elections.

Some of the opposition’s “friends”, including the Turkish government, are also worried that Putin's original plan does not differ from the Damascus plan, and that the Kremlin is only selling meaningless promises to the White House. They are worried that the Russian tsar is only trying to buy time by launching a political process, just as Damascus and Tehran are doing. This political process might lead to the birth of a "crippled government" in Damascus and some of the "useful cities" in Syria, which unlike what Kerry thinks, means that the result will not be the birth of a new Syrian regime, but rather, the revival of the same old regime.

At the same time, military operations continue. The first target is to force the opposition to submit through destroying the infrastructure of their areas and killing their leaders one after another, just like what happened with Army of Islam commander Zahran Alloush, until the remaining leaders are ready to cooperate with Russia, much like Moscow’s policy in Chechnya. The second target is to buy time to eliminate the middle zone militarily, politically, and socially. Barack Obama is happy to launch a political process for the worst humanitarian disaster since WWII before the end of his tenure, but when the new president comes, they will find himself in front of two choices: the regime and ISIS. The new president then has to choose, and they will definitely choose the regime and will restore its legitimacy.

Some countries of the Friends of Syrian Group offered an alternative choice: to keep the negotiations between the regime and the opposition going, to provide the moderate opposition with more support and to "prevent its defeat". These countries believe they shouldn't feel comfortable with Putin's intentions. They also believe that it is naive to believe Moscow’s words and ignore their actions, considering Putin believes that the regime and Assad's survival is the clearest example of his victory, and of the West’s failure in Syria, just like Iraq and Libya. The example they have given was that Russia killed Zahran Alloush after the Army of Islam had participated in the opposition conference in Riyadh where the political solution was adopted. Russia also violated the agreement of Daraa countryside that said that Free Syrian Army factions would not strike and in return, Russia would not launch any raids against the area. Now, Russia launches dozens of raids everyday on the city of Sheikh Miskeen in Daraa countryside. Moscow also talks of a collaboration with the FSA, but the only clear collaboration exists to the West of Euphrates River where the Russians provide an air cover for the Kurdish-Arabic "Syrian Democratic Forces" against ISIS.

Apart from the regime's concerns about Putin's political intentions and the bitterness of the Russian medicine, and apart from Obama's contentment with the tsar’s promises and the concerns of those regional and Western countries that sees any concession to Moscow a weakness that encourages Putin to ask for more, resolution 2254 is considered an important step because it includes a vision of a political solution and a possible end to this bloody game. It is a struggle in the making with the conditions and the time to implement this plan. All the political details and the negotiation sessions are part of the political accumulation that will lead to the formation of the new social Syrian agreement. "Geneva III" will undoubtedly contain additions to the previous conferences of Geneva II, from two years ago, and Geneva I, from four years ago.

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.

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