One of the things that analysts can agree on regarding the situation in Syria is the inability of Russia to resolve the crisis militarily after having bombed the country for over a year and a half with all the military might at its disposal. Russian forces have used internationally-banned munitions, it is alleged, and bombed civilian targets including markets, mosques, schools and hospitals, killing thousands of civilians in an effort to pressure them into abandoning the revolution.
Clear proof of Russia's military failure is the fact that the armed Syrian opposition has forced Moscow to negotiate with its representatives in the Kazakhstan capital Astana. This is after Moscow, Tehran and Bashar Al-Assad's regime had viewed them as terrorist organisations and refused to talk with them only a few months ago.
This backdown by Russia is not a political manoeuvre or trick, as some say, but a confirmation that Moscow has lost hope in the two paths that it had thought would work: the political solution being reached through Geneva, especially since America had dominated the process and decisions; and hope in a military solution through Iran and its militias. The Russians have realised that Iran's Major General Qasem Soleimani duped them when he claimed that a three-month aerial attack by Moscow's air force would end the Syrian Revolution. Now, eighteen months later, Russia finds itself involved deeply in the Syrian crisis and looking for a solution in order to avoid another Afghanistan scenario. This is what made it turn to Turkey, putting aside its differences with Ankara.
After Moscow agreed a ceasefire with the Syrian opposition in Ankara on 29 December, it took advantage of the deal and called for a conference in Astana in record time; it was held on 23 January. Russia moved quickly because it knew that the incoming Trump administration would have a different opinion about the situation in Syria and would be worse than Obama in handling it. The Russians also made every possible effort to prevent Iran and its militias from sabotaging the ceasefire since it could not allow the Astana conference to fail.
Even though Russia was forced to include Iran as a guarantor for the ceasefire agreement and a partner in monitoring it in order for the government in Tehran to remain committed to Moscow's solution rather than being an obstacle, it fears that Iran is against the solution or will be used by the US to hinder any agreement. Hence, the Russians want to put Iran under their wing in the political solution.
The US, Germany and Britain refused to accept the establishment of a Russian military base in Iran a few months ago and Iranian voices emerged expressing their own rejection of such a base. There is no doubt that Russia fears that this will be repeated by the US and Europe in order to oppose its political solution for Syria. Russia wants to have Iran on its side until it achieves its goals, especially after its military intervention in Syria which resulted from Soleimani's deception. After achieving its goals, Russia would not mind if the Iranian officer was "disappeared", as he is the number one reason for Russia's losses in Syria.
Moscow did not achieve anything in Astana apart from a promise to formulate ceasefire monitoring mechanisms that may not exist very long because the matter is dependent on Tehran's commitment to the Russian project that actually restricts its own ambitions in Syria. Thus, Russia will not be able to achieve success in Syria unless it does indeed limit Iranian ambitions and removes the pro-Iran Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan militias; Moscow will not be able to reach any political solution successfully with the presence of foreign militias and other forces in Syria. It was wise of the Syrian opposition to refuse to fight any terrorist organisations or seek to remove them from Syria until a road map is put in place to deal with all such groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah and other militias.
This is the major obstacle facing Russia, as it may not be able to compel Iran to commit to it except by force or by establishing a Shia sectarian Syrian entity in a state called rather wistfully by Assad himself "Beneficial Syria", even after the departure of the Syrian president. This is because Iran wants to be paid back for its losses over the past five years and can't leave Syria as a loser unless the government falls in Tehran.
These obstacles hindering the Russian solution, especially from Iran, will make Moscow falter in its political steps, even more than it has faltered militarily. One hindrance is the fact that it handed the Syrian opposition at the Astana conference a draft constitution for the future of their country. This was announced by one of the Russian Foreign Minister's advisors, and the ministry did not deny it. Instead, it defended the step by saying that the Syrian parties who will decide its fate will discuss it.
This was a mistake. Something of such a magnitude should have had a special conference of its own so that the news would not be leaked in a way that was offensive both to Russia and Syria. How can the Syrian people accept a constitution written by a foreign state? Passing the constitution in this manner was a mistake by the Russians, even if it was only a draft document and Russia was expecting the Syrians to view it as the lesser of two evils, given that the Iranians are pushing for a sectarian constitution that places Syria under the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei (although Tehran denies this). Russia is working against such a sectarian constitution which is, in fact, already being implemented on the ground.
Russia's second mistake was the foreign ministry's invitation to Syrian opposition figures three days after the Astana conference to visit Moscow. The National Coordination Committee, overseen by Assad's government, responded to the invitation, along with the Syrian opposition overseen by the Egyptian government. Meanwhile, the General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Riyad Hijab, refused the invitation because it was extended to him personally and not to the HNC.
Furthermore, no one representing the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces went to Moscow. Quite simply, the Russian policy has hit a dead end. It is as if the Astana conference was neither convincing nor reassuring; it was just an attempt to do something. President Vladimir Putin said, before the conference, that the situation in Syria is facing a number of difficulties and that he doesn't expect the Astana talks to resolve them. There were also very clear and firm positions from the armed Syrian opposition, led by Mohammed Aloush, that they would not go to Astana out of weakness, and the fact that they agreed that the solution in Syria should be political, not military, does not mean that they are abandoning the military struggle and will not lay down their arms based on illusions of a political solution handled by Moscow.
Last, but not least, Moscow was mistaken in declaring the postponement of the Geneva conference that was scheduled for 8th February, and moving it to the end of the month. Moscow did this unilaterally and without discussing it with any of the other parties involved. This drove the office of UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to comment, "There is no confirmation that the February talks are postponed." This was a strange thing for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to do.
The postponement announcement came during Lavrov's meeting in Moscow last Friday with delegates representing the Moscow and Cairo opposition platforms, along with other opponents. Moreover, he had just announced — on 24 January — that he would be attending the Geneva Conference on its scheduled date. How could Russia's position change within a matter of a day or so? In addition, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party was invited to Moscow even though Russia knows Turkey's position on the organisation and Moscow is relying on Turkey's help with the ceasefire and political solution talks in the months ahead.
There is no doubt that the Russian policy towards Syria is less than settled, and that Moscow is looking for a way out of the crisis. It is as if it does not trust anyone and is trying to resolve the crisis in Syria on its own. This is its greatest mistake because it ignores the presence of the Syrian people and does not understand or take into consideration the existence of a nation which wants true change, regardless of how long the revolution and suffering lasts. They are the ones who possess the rights, the land, the revolution, the change, the constitution and the future.
Translated from Alkhaleejonline, 29 January, 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.