Dancing to Russia’s Tune in Syria

As the United States stands back, the Saudis and even the U.N. special envoy are now open to a greater Russian diplomatic role in shaping the future of Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dances at a festival in Saransk, Russia, on July 19, 2007. (Vladimir Rodionov/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin dances at a festival in Saransk, Russia, on July 19, 2007. (Vladimir Rodionov/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 24, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, called together a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders to deliver a blunt message: Riyadh would be throttling back its military support for their efforts to overthrow Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

It was time, Jubeir counseled, to devote their energies instead to securing a political deal with Damascus at a peace conference in January in Sochi, Russia, according to two opposition sources and two other diplomatic officials who described the meeting to Foreign Policy. If they were well prepared for Sochi, Jubeir argued, they would be in a better position to get an agreement on a political transition. (Saudi officials in New York and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.)

Jubeir’s appeals mark another reversal for Syria’s beleaguered anti-Assad forces, who already lost the covert military backing of the United States in July. More important, the Saudi message underscores the success of Russia’s diplomatic push to shape the future of postwar Syria, which is quickly coming to rival the official, U.N.-led process that has sputtered along for five years in Geneva.

Even the United Nations is now torn over whether to take part in Russia’s peace plan, with Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, mounting a behind-the-scenes push to secure a seat at the table in Sochi and urging Saudi Arabia and the Syrian opposition to attend.

Moscow’s growing diplomatic clout in the Syrian endgame has been made possible, in part, by Washington’s passivity. The Donald Trump administration has focused more on fighting the Islamic State and fending off Iran than on shaping the political future of the war-ravaged country.

“Syria is an example of how U.S. diplomacy is not front and center,” one U.N. Security Council diplomat said. “The U.S. has lost ground to Russia on that issue.”

Even if the United States wanted to play a bigger role in postwar Syria, its disengagement has weakened its ability to do so, said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the former U.S. envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition.

“In many respects, the political trajectory has been decided by the Russians,” Allen said last month. “And sadly, the United States has little capacity now to exert leadership in this process or to participate.”

Russia’s latest diplomatic drive began more than a year ago. In January 2017, the Russian government held talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Iranian and Turkish officials to work out a cease-fire; the United States was largely excluded from the process, which is ongoing.

Now Moscow is planning to use a conference later this month at the Black Sea resort of Sochi to help determine the contours of Syria’s political future — which the Russians hope will include Assad.

Russia’s diplomatic push worries many Western governments and Syrian opposition leaders. They fear the meeting will simply consolidate recent military gains by Russia and the Syrian government, perpetuate Assad’s brutal rule, and drive a new generation of Syrians into the insurgency. They also worry the Russian process will jettison some core parts of what was agreed in Geneva, such as a transitional government and a blueprint for life after Assad. Many critics charge that Russia, as a party to the conflict, cannot be an honest broker.

“There is no alternative to the Geneva process led by the U.N.,” France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters late last month. “There is no other game in town.”

More than 130 Syrian opposition groups, alarmed by the apparent willingness of de Mistura to take part in the Sochi talks, sent him a letter on Jan. 3 calling the negotiations a “dangerous departure from the [U.N.-led] Geneva process” and a “serious threat” to Syria’s prospects for peace.

The problem is that the Geneva process is starting to look less viable. Russia’s military assistance to the Assad regime has made Damascus less open to the idea of ceding power to a transitional government, a key element of the Geneva plan.

And Washington is doing little to keep Geneva alive, as the Trump administration focuses instead on stamping out the Islamic State and minimizing Iran’s influence. European allies privately complain that the United States hasn’t used its diplomatic muscle to support the Geneva talks and that there’s no single figure at the White House or State Department tasked with shaping the discussions.

“Someone has to own this and nobody does,” said a former senior U.S. national security official who has ties to the White House. To judge by the Saudi message to the Syrian opposition, however, as well as divisions inside the U.N., it increasingly appears that someone does indeed own the process: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Trump administration officials counter that the United States has more leverage in Syria than it did a year ago, now that its Kurdish partners control more territory and U.S. troops remain on the ground.)

While U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has made it clear that the U.N. will only go to Sochi if the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other key allies either attend or give him a green light, de Mistura has argued that both the U.N. and the Syrian opposition should take part.

Last month, during the eighth round of Geneva talks, he pulled aside opposition leaders and pressed them to attend the Russian talks. Guterres ordered him to stand down, but not before the message got out.

“There is a split at the U.N.,” one diplomat said. “De Mistura wants to go so he can inject a U.N. viewpoint into the proceedings.” But his colleagues in New York “feel it will simply legitimate the Russian aims.”

“So far, the secretary-general feels Sochi doesn’t pass the smell test,” the diplomat said. Guterres is scheduled to meet with an opposition delegation at U.N. headquarters Monday afternoon.

“De Mistura has a tendency to lean toward the Russians rather than the United States,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist based in Washington. “He feels the U.S. has withdrawn from the Syrian file and the only way for him to deliver is to lean toward the Russians.”

A spokesman for de Mistura declined to respond to questions about his support for the Sochi talks and referred FP to a series of statements by the U.N. special envoy indicating that any constitutional committee that might emerge from Sochi would have to be endorsed by the U.N., in consultation with the U.N. Security Council.

Officially, the United States still pins its hopes on the talks in Geneva, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis all trying to push Assad toward the exit.

“Geneva is the only way forward,” one State Department official told FP. “As our focus remains on Geneva and substantive progress from those negotiations, all other methods only serve as a distraction.”

But there are signs of a split in Washington, too, which could open the door to a more active Russian role.

Several top U.S. officials, including Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State; Michael Ratney, the special envoy for Syria; and David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, favor a limited approach to Syria that focuses on defeating the Islamic State, countering Iranian activities, and then winding down U.S. activities in Syria, according to diplomatic sources. McGurk seems especially open-minded about Moscow’s diplomatic efforts.

“We’ve engaged with the Russians on this about exactly what they have in mind, and they have said that Sochi would be kind of a gathering of Syrian figures, and then what happens in Sochi would feed directly into Geneva,” he told reporters last month.

“What we would not support and what would have absolutely no legitimacy would be a parallel process that’s parallel entirely to Geneva.”

But with the United States taking a back seat in Syria, a parallel diplomatic push seems to be exactly what is taking place.

FP chief national security reporter Dan De Luce and State Department reporter Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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