Russia pushes ‘Sochi Process’ to shape Syria’s future under al-Assad
Russian President Vladimir Putin will host the Turkish and Iranian presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hassan Rouhani on Nov. 22 in Sochi. It is a key summit at which the Syrian issue will be discussed from A to Z.
The summit comes nine days after Putin and Erdoğan met - again in Sochi - to evaluate the latest developments in the Syrian theater, amid the prospect of the upcoming process for a political solution to the years-long civil war.
Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump together stressed the need for a political solution to the question, in a rare agreement earlier this month that pushed Moscow to work for an accelerated settlement in Syria. One of most important aspects of the Trump-Putin agreement was the fact that both leaders praised the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in ending the violence, as well as in the recent reform steps on Syria’s “normalization” process.
Late on Nov. 20, al-Assad paid an announced visit to Sochi as the guest of Putin ahead of tomorrow’s summit. Putin was also supposed to hold a series of phone conversations with the leaders of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to discuss a potential roadmap for a political solution to the Syrian issue.
Equally important is the fact Putin’s conversation with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz came at a time when Riyadh was set to host Syrian opposition groups, in an attempt to secure long-anticipated unity among al-Assad’s opponents. The Nov. 20 resignation of Riyad Hajib as the head of Syria’s main opposition bloc, the HNC, has been regarded within this frame and Russia welcomed the development.
In a joint address to the media, Putin said the following to al-Assad: “I would like to talk with you about the basic principles of the political process and the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, the idea of which you have supported. I would like to hear your opinions on the current situation and development prospects, as well as your views on the political process, which should ultimately be implemented under the auspices of the U.N. We also hope that the U.N. will join the [political] process in its final stage.”
All these developments signal a meticulous Russian effort to craft a roadmap for a political settlement in Syria. This attempt has a number of important aspects: First, although Turkey thinks otherwise, both Russia and Iran believe that the “war on terror” in Syria is nearing an end. Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov told his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in Sochi on Nov. 21 that “the active phase of the military operation in Syria is nearing its completion. Although some issues are yet to be addressed, this stage is coming to its logical end.”
Likewise, Iranian President Rouhani told the media that the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been won. Turkish President Erdoğan, however, said on Nov. 21 that neither Iraq nor Syria have yet found peace and comfort, as departing terror organizations have “only been replaced by other terror groups.”
Secondly, the road map, as Gerasimov says, rules out any active military operation in the Syrian theater, except for fighting against ISIL and al-Nusra. That particularly concerns Turkey’s long-standing demands to intervene against the increasing influence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit’s (YPG) in northern Syria. Erdoğan has openly called on Putin to withdraw Russian troops from Afrin, urging that this region needs to be cleansed of the YPG. The summit will focus on joint efforts to establish de-escalation zones in Syria, but Turkish demands to let its aircrafts fly over the region are unlikely to get approval.
Thirdly, Russia seems committed to holding what it calls the “Syrian National Dialogue Congress.” Turkey has strongly opposed the participation of the YPG in the congress, in which all ethnic and sectarian groups are expected to take part in order to discuss the future of Syria. There is still uncertainty over the format and participants of this meeting but it will likely be convened in the coming days. The meeting will likely set the basis of the key stakeholders in the making of a new Syria.
Putin’s joint statement with al-Assad did not make any references to the Geneva Process, but it did mention the U.N.’s role in the final stage of a political process. The road map being crafted by Russia envisages the continued rule of al-Assad in Syria, with the inclusion of various moderate opposition groups, as the fight against al-Nusra and other jihadist groups continues.
The summit in Sochi will show us whether Putin’s plan is approved by Turkey and Iran. Eyes will particularly be on Erdoğan, who has been staunchly against the continuation of al-Assad rule in Syria. Another question that will find its answer at the meeting is whether Erdoğan’s demand for the exclusion of the YPG will be fulfilled.
But regardless of the answers to these questions, it is clear that today’s summit will launch the “Sochi Process” crafted by Putin.