Putin’s gambit in Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi, Russia, on Nov. 22. The trilateral summit was an important juncture in finding a viable political solution for Syria’s six-year civil war, which has claimed nearly half a million lives.
Since the early stages of the conflict, there have been various efforts to broker a ceasefire, ranging from the French-led Friends of Syria Group to U.N.-brokered Geneva talks, to the Vienna Process and finally the Russian-led Astana talks. All failed, however, to bring all the warring groups together, as inevitably they all had preconditions for talking to other sides unless they felt that they still have some fighting power on the ground, and also various peace brokers opposed to the attendance of one or the other groups. Finally, the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has prevented any meaningful chance for a solution.
The conditions are now much amenable for a new push; hence, the Sochi summit to clear away objections of the three of the four most involved external parties in the conflict. The absentee was of course the U.S., which tagged along the process with talks between Putin and President Donald Trump earlier this month. In any case, the noteworthy weakening - if not yet the end - of ISIL has eliminated the most important obstacle to end the Syrian civil war.
Nobody expected that the trilateral summit would produce a magical formula to suddenly end the conflict, but the leaders reiterated their agreement to commit to the reconstruction of Syria, to hold a Syrian National Dialogue Congress, timing to be determined, and to strengthen de-escalation zones in Syria ahead of the next round of Geneva talks.
As reflected by the statements of leaders after the summit, they are not seeing eye to eye on various commitments yet.
Especially Turkey still strongly objects to the attendance of Syrian Kurdish groups closely affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its main terrorist challenger, to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. Turkey also does not wish to see a possible domination of these groups in the planned de-escalation zones.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Sochi ahead of the trilateral summit and various statements from the Turkish side that one can talk with anybody in politics showed that at least some sort of an agreement has evolved among the leaders regarding Assad’s future during the political transition in Syria, even if it is not openly declared in order to avoid further alienation of some opposition groups.
Although the criticisms are abundant about the secret plans of Russia to bypass the U.S. and the EU in the process, the unwillingness of the U.S. to take more responsibility on the ground, which started with the former President Barack Obama, has paved the way for increased presence of Russia and its support of the Assad regime in Syria since 2015. This has put it in a position now to force a solution ensuring Assad’s involvement. Putin’s phone diplomacy, talking to the leaders of all the countries involved including the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia to build an international support for Sochi talks and their willingness to go ahead, has effectively elevated him to the peacemaker position in Syria.
Although Erdoğan remarked that “the point we have reached is important, but not enough” after the summit, the Russian-led peace process has strengthened with Putin’s flurry of diplomatic engagements and is now the only serious attempt on the table. This does not mean the end is here though. But we finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.