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Russia’s stance on Syria creates scepticism towards vague peace initiative

As the world welcomed the start of 2015, Syria marked the 4th year since the start of the revolution in 2011, that political movement-turned-conflict that has paralysed the Syrian people. In these four years, a number of political solutions have been proposed to put a stop to the war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives. A number of international powers have engaged in the conflict, each with suggestions to end Syria’s deterioration. As the dynamics of the conflict shift and develop, Bashar Al-Assad’s main ally, Russia, has proposed “peace talks” to be held in Moscow later this month.

The response from groups in Syria has been one of uncertainty. The reaction of the Damascus regime was characteristically cold; the opposition groups are sceptical; and the international community is suspicious.

“It [Russia] cannot be a mediator in any peaceful endeavours,” said Ali Amin Suwaid, a Syrian political analyst and a member of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution. “It is a side that represents the [Assad] regime, nothing more and nothing less.”

From the 1950s, what was the Soviet Union and is now Russia has maintained a strong relationship with the Ba’ath Party in the Middle East. Positive relations were developed with the government in Syria, established after a military coup in 1970 by Hafez Al-Assad, the current president’s father. In recent decades, the ties between the two countries have strengthened, with Russia becoming Syria’s main source of arms and ammunition.

During the current crisis, Russia has provided significant support for the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. It has used its right of veto in the UN Security Council, along with China, on four consecutive occasions to defend the Assad government from international intervention. The flow of arms and ammunition from Russia to Syria has remained entirely uninterrupted, despite significant international pressure on Moscow to disengage. Opponents of the Assad regime consider Russia to be a partner in the government’s crimes, violence and killing of the Syrian people.

Suwaid believes that if the proposed talks are held in Moscow, they will be very different to those held previously in Geneva. “They will tend towards reconciliation with the regime rather than negotiation.”

While the intention and likelihood of the Moscow “peace talks” remain uncertain, the Russian foreign ministry is going ahead with plans to host delegations from the Syrian opposition and the Assad government in a couple of weeks’ time. Scepticism towards Russia’s re-launching of a peace dialogue has formed within the opposition, fuelled by Russia’s very obvious pro-regime bias.

The Assad regime has said that it is ready for “preliminary consultations”. Nevertheless, there is no indication that it will address the talks with any willingness to establish a transitional government.

The main opposition body, the Syrian National Coalition, has not yet announced whether it plans to participate in any discussions initiated by Moscow. The former president of the coalition, Hadi Al-Bahra, told reporters last week in Cairo that Russia has not outlined its initiative clearly. He pointed out that peace talks are already taking place among Syrian opposition groups, and they have in any case not yet received an invitation to go to Moscow.

“For more than a month now, the coalition has taken steps to begin a process of dialogue with all political parties, trends, civil associations and trade unions about the prospects of reaching a political solution,” Al-Bahra told Asharq Al-Awsat.

More recently, Al-Bahra’s newly-elected successor, Khaled Khoja, told Reuters that his group has doubts about the Russian initiative and is not yet sure whether representatives of the coalition will attend. “All of the coalition is committed to the Syrian people and not to Russia,” Khoja added.

According to an activist from Homs, Russia is inviting opposition figures as individuals and not as political representatives. The spokesperson of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth Movement, Ahmad Al-Qaseir, accused Moscow of “working to disintegrate” the Syrian opposition further. “Everyone knows that the Syrian people have been killed for four years by Russia’s international stance and weapons,” he added.

The failure of the previous UN-brokered peace talks held in Geneva in June 2012 and January last year was largely a result of the Assad regime’s refusal to discuss any possible transitional government. The Geneva Communique, which was issued after the “Geneva I” conference, called for the formation of a transitional government in Syria that would include figures of both sides, the current government and the opposition. The latter insists that there is no place for Bashar Al-Assad in any transitional body nor in the country’s future.

A study published by pro-opposition Syrian think tank the Omran Centre for Strategic Studies, explains that Russia is pretending to initiate a national dialogue among the Syrians but without any clear vision or strategy. The report suggests that Russia’s true agenda is to refresh its economic, strategic and political interests in Syria and the region, particularly after its international regression as Moscow has become marginalised from the US-led coalition against ISIS. The study also claims that Russia is seeking a way out of its economic crisis caused by the latest US and European sanctions and the sharp drop in oil prices. The government in Moscow has warned the US that Western sanctions on Russia would damage and even end cooperation on geopolitical issues, such as the Iranian nuclear programme and Syria.

It is almost impossible to have a political solution for such a complicated and prolonged crisis. Russian and Iranian interests are further deterring moves for peace in Syria, as the two countries seek to influence the conflict to fit their national interests. In the case of Russia’s proposed “peace talks”, the absence of a clear agenda and political strategy will undoubtedly inhibit any discussions.

“We can say that it is too late for Russia to stand with the Syrian people,” insisted Ali Amin Suwaid. “The Syrian people are unable to believe Russia.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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