It may seem natural for Russian diplomats to try to promote a new platform for Syria alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has, after all, heard comforting words from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the necessity of political openness to the regime in Damascus and the need for Syria to return to the Arab League after a ten-year absence. However, what is strange is that the Russians want a platform for Syria with Qatar and Turkey, two countries with a political position that contradicts Moscow's.
Lavrov heard strong words in Doha from the Qatari foreign minister and his Turkish counterpart. The former insisted that the reasons for the suspension of Syria's membership of the Arab League still exist, so political openness to the regime depends not only on the launch of a political process, but also on the end of tyranny and violence. This can only be achieved after completing the political process, not just beginning it. Meanwhile, the Turkish minister said that any openness to Damascus will encourage it to continue violence, tyranny and political inflexibility.
Why did Moscow choose Doha and Ankara as partners in such a platform? What does the Kremlin expect from it? The answer to the first question is very simple: Qatar and Turkey are still the main regional obstacles standing in the way of the Assad regime and Russia's political vision, even if Ankara is Moscow's partner in many other matters within Syria. Furthermore, Russia does not want to build a platform for Syria with Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to the similarity of their positions, as such a platform will not have any benefit; the idea of establishing international platforms is that they include parties that have differences.
Exactly what Russia is hoping to achieve from this platform is a complicated matter. It is taking advantage of the fluidity in the position of the new US administration for which the Syrian crisis is not a priority when compared with the Iranian nuclear deal and Tehran's role in Iraq and Yemen. This suggests that the Biden administration has not yet developed, and may not develop, a strategic vision regarding Syria that goes beyond the four conditions agreed upon in Washington: no to withdrawal from east of the Euphrates; no to lifting economic sanctions; no to reconstruction and political openness in Damascus before the political settlement; and no to the return of refugees before a safe environment is created.
In light of this, and in the face of the static situation within Syria, Russia is working to recycle its positions and open up to new regional capitals which are currently locked out. On this occasion, it means engaging an Arab state that supports the opposition and the Syrian people who aspire to freedom.
The humanitarian aspect and potential participation in the reconstruction of Syria is seen as a gateway for Doha's involvement in the country, given the increasing international demands to reduce the economic burdens on the Assad regime in a way that will have a positive effect on the Syrian people. UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen was clear about this a few months ago: "The United Nations, and I personally, have directly engaged concerned States so that all humanitarian exemptions to sanctions remain available and are fully utilised to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. I note the positive response of different countries to the United Nations on this aspect." This is in addition to the presence of data in the US to provide exceptions in the sanctions as a means to reduce the repercussions of sanctions on the Syrians.
The humanitarian issue is important to Doha and Ankara, but it cannot be separated from the political dimension. Any participation in the provision of humanitarian aid or in reconstruction is considered to be providing a service to the Syrian regime. Qatar and Turkey will not accept this, unless there are Russian concessions offered to them, and it does not seem clear that Moscow is able to do this, as it has been silent for years over a stalemate on the political, economic and humanitarian levels.
Russia may, however, concede that aid may be delivered across the Syrian border for a year instead of six months, and border crossings may be allowed to let humanitarian aid through. Moscow imposed its position on the UN Security Council in January 2019 with Resolution 2504 which stipulated that the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria can only go through two crossings from Turkey, Bab Al-Salam, and Bab Al-Hawa, for six months, along with the closure of the Yarubiyah-Rabia crossing on the Iraqi border and Daraa-Ramtha on the Jordanian border. If this is achieved, it will be a victory for Turkish-Qatari policy on an issue in which the US was unable to make a breakthrough. We will need to wait until July, when the six-month period expires, to find out if it was achieved.
However, a Russian concession on humanitarian affairs is not sufficient for Ankara and Doha to abandon the US umbrella and rush to Moscow to include it in the provision of aid and reconstruction. Neither Qatar nor Turkey need Russia to search for a role in the region. Rather, it seems as if the opposite is true, and Russia needs an Arab party in Syria that is able to take action if understandings on specific issues are reached. There is no better choice for this than Qatar given its strategic relations with Turkey, the strong regional player in Syria, and Doha's network of international connections. Russia has experienced the Qatari role in more than one issue, most notably in Afghanistan, one of the most difficult in the world at the moment.
Hence, the Moscow-Doha-Ankara platform cannot be considered complete; it is a starting point for future understandings, and the political understandings are not far behind. No matter how much Moscow tries, without a change in the Qatari-Turkish political position on the one hand, or a change in the Russian position on the other, this platform will not be able to achieve anything serious.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 14 March 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.