Features of the military-political line of Russia on the Syrian «track»

EXCLUSIVE

ALAFF continues to post the translation of chapters from the newest book of Russian diplomat Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva. The first part of the translation (as well as information about the book and other details) can be read here.

The following chapter reveals what prompted Russia to take part in resolving the Syrian conflict, the specifics of Russia’s approach to solving the problem of the Syrian crisis, shows the features of Russian policy in this direction.

The explanations in square brackets are ALAFF’s additions.

As before, the necessary clarification — using the term “regime”, the author implies a form of state-political structure.


 

CHAPTER 6

The evolution of the military-political line of Russia in the Syrian settlement

The Russian line on the Syrian dossier certainly deserves special attention from the point of view of analyzing the place and role of Moscow in the emerging world order. One of the characteristic features of the modern system of international relations is the increasing role of the states of the region, their influence on resolving crisis situations. This is accompanied by some decrease in the space for the United States in terms of influencing regional processes while simultaneously expanding the space for Russia’s military-political maneuver. Moscow took advantage of this situation, becoming a participant in any and all formats of the Syrian settlement, which determined Russia’s special role in these processes.

Analysis of the conflict in Syria, its influence on the future world order is hardly possible without understanding the policy of Russia in the Syrian direction.

 

1. Diplomatic course of Moscow on Syria. Russia’s place in the emerging world order

It should be noted that when considering the policy of Russia in the Syrian direction, it is necessary to avoid a common mistake and not put at the heart the alleged desire of Russia to “defend its Middle Eastern ally — B. Assad’s regime” when forming the line in the Syrian direction.

Moscow’s policy was much more nuanced and formed from a number of priorities: preventing the chaos of the Middle East as a result of regime change, countering terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the drug business, etc.

The recognition of the originality of the Russian line in the Syrian direction helps to better understand its independent influence on the formation of the modern system of international relations. For example, Europe, which was used to building its policy in relatively stable and predictable conditions during the post-war decades, was clearly unprepared for such threats as terrorism and illegal migration, and was forced to react to them ex post, often not associating their appearance with the previously pursued policy in the region (except for the opposition, including right-wing parties that criticized the authorities for failing in the Middle East, which created a surge of threats). In the United States, the course [of their policy] largely depended on electoral cycles, and was also a continuation of the thinking that took shape in the era of unipolarity and pluralistic unipolarity and implied a bid for unilateral coercive actions (Iraq) or the implementation of the concept of “back leadership” (Libya).

 

1.2. Russian-Syrian relations under B. Assad

To understand the motives that determined the adoption by the Russian leadership of the line on Syria, it is necessary to abandon suspicions that in the SAR Moscow (on the American model) tried to “save the union regime”. Let us give some evidence to the contrary.

B. Assad, who in the West was considered to be one of Russia’s key allies, visited Moscow only in the fifth year of his presidency (his first foreign visit after coming to power was in Paris, the second in London). As you know, choosing a capital to visit for the head of state is not an idle question, it makes a lot of sense, because it demonstrates the vector of foreign policy partnership that a leader plans to set during his presidency (for example, PRC Chairman Xi Jinping made the first foreign state visit to Russia, thus demonstrating Beijing’s unchanged course towards a comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation with Moscow [1]). Russia before the conflict ranked only ninth in Syria’s trade (3%). The leading positions belonged to the EU. Russia had a military infrastructure in Tartus, but it was not a full-fledged military base (as it was represented in the West), but a basing point for the navy. Syria, which was perceived as a large market for Russian weapons, was supplied with 1/10 of the volume sold, for example, to India or 1/4 of weapons purchased by Vietnam [2].

If one look at the trade and economic relations of Syria and Russia, it becomes obvious that before the conflict, Moscow was not a major economic partner of Damascus. For example, in 2010, the share of SAR’s exports to Russia was only 0.4%, while the leading importers of Syrian goods were such countries as Iraq (30.2%), Lebanon (12.2%), Germany (8.9%), Egypt (6.8%), Saudi Arabia (5%), Italy (4.6%). If we touch on imports, the main suppliers of goods to the SAR were Turkey (10%), China (8%), Egypt (6.4%). Russia’s share was 5.9% [3].

Persistent positioning B. Assad as an ally of Russia allowed the West to explain Moscow’s behavior within the usual categories that go back to the origins of the Cold War and fit the phrase attributed to F. Roosevelt — “he may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch” [4] (it was about the Nicaraguan dictator anti-communist Somose). Reasoning within the framework of understandable formulas, the West and, above all, the Americans made a serious miscalculation as regards the correct understanding of Russia’s policy in Syria. Moscow really opposed the overthrow of B. Assad, but not because she perceived him as a conductor of her interests in the Middle East. On the contrary, the Russian leadership quite adequately assessed the essence of the ruling regime and the limits of its influence on it, as well as purposefully kept the distance, trying to avoid being associated with [regime’s] actions. This explains, for example, Moscow’s support for UN Security Council resolutions 2165 (2014), 2332 (2016), 2939 (2017), which contained very harsh language regarding the SAR government: expressing anxiety about the use of barrel bombs in Aleppo and strikes from the air [5]; the requirement that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, immediately fulfill their obligations under international law, including the applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international human rights law [6]; prioritizing the delivery of humanitarian aid to the population of the blocked and inaccessible areas [7] (controlled by the armed opposition) and the requirement for the Syrian government to allow access to many localities, including several besieged in violation of the Munich statement of communities in the Damascus region [8].

The deliberate distancing of the Russian side from the actions of the Syrian government was manifested not only in this, but also, for example, in the unwillingness of Moscow — the co-chair of the Ceasefire Task Force and Humanitarian Access International Syria Support Group — to bear full responsibility for the behavior of Damascus in the area of adherence to the cessation of hostilities and to ensure humanitarian access. The thesis regularly voiced by the Russian leadership that “Moscow does not hold on to B. Assad” (2012) [9] and Russia “does not support B. Assad” (2017) [10] contained only a small share of guile.

It makes no sense to deny that, in parallel with being drawn into the conflict, Russia and the government of B. Assad naturally increased their cooperation, which means that relations were gradually getting closer and closer. However, if for B. Assad and his entourage, the involvement of Moscow in the conflict on the side of Damascus was directly related to the issue of political survival, for Russia — and the author was personally convinced of this, interacting with the Syrian leadership — the SAR became an ally largely due to circumstances. If at the global level Russia believed that it was pursuing a policy of giving the world system greater justice through strengthening the foundations of international humanitarian law and updating the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, then translated into Russian-Syrian relations for Moscow this meant preventing the regime from falling. Official Damascus has often used this in attempts to “bind” the Russian side closer to itself.

Thus, it is futile and harmful to look for elements of foreign policy intercession in the motives of the Russian line [on Syria], because it can distract from the definition of the driving forces and understanding of the essential content of Russia’s policy on the Syrian “dossier”. The desire to establish a fair world order (which, from the point of view of the Russian leadership, meant returning closer to the post-war principles of international relations) was dictated not only by anxiety over the fate of the Middle East. And the desire to avoid negative security consequences, which are becoming a consequence of the destabilization of the region, played an important but not the key role.

 

1.3. Motivation of Moscow’s policy on the Syrian direction

Let’s look at the complex of considerations that formed the line of Moscow in the Syrian direction.

The first group is internal-local considerations. In their center is to prevent fragmentation and weakening of the post-Soviet space and Russia itself. Hence, a permanent emphasis on the inadmissibility of an unconstitutional change of power in the SAR, the importance of building the process of resolving the crisis in Syria in the framework of the norms of international law enshrined in the UN Charter. This, however, was achieved without dispersion of resources and with an eye on internal public opinion. This explains Moscow’s unwillingness to get too deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, in particular, to send a ground force troops to the SAR, which threatened a repetition of the Afghan (USSR) and Iraqi (US) scenarios.

The second group is global considerations. It is about the “return” of Russia to the international arena through the Middle East and participation in the formation of a more equitable (from the point of view of Moscow) world order.

The question arises: why was the Syrian conflict chosen by Moscow to solve this problem? At the same time, other crises that Moscow could use to restore geopolitical weight were present on the world map — Libya, Yemen, Ukraine.

The unequivocal support of a particular military or political force in post-Gaddafi Libya, and even more so armed intervention, involved a difficult choice between numerous armed units that fought in the country with no guaranteed result. In the conditions of victories of H. Haftar “in the field”, the support of the “legitimate government” in Tobruk threatened a major foreign policy loss (although Moscow officially recognized Tobruk as legitimate). The unconditional stake on H. Haftar was risky and would go against the resolutions of the UN Security Council on Libya. Moreover, an in-depth intervention in the Libyan crisis would mean that Moscow would have to deal with the legacy left by Western countries in Libya. Illegal migration resulting from the short-sighted policies of Europe in Libya did not pose a threat to Russia.

If Yemen, which is very far from Russia both politically and geographically, was of interest to Moscow [at all], then not from a counter-terrorist point of view (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was localized and, to a certain extent, grew out of the local tribal structure, not posing a direct threat to Russia), but rather in the context of securing [Russia] the role of power, without whose participation the settlement of regional crises was of little prospect.

Ukraine was a special crisis for Russia. The tough, clearly anti-Russian position of the US and the EU with regard to the sequence of implementation of the Minsk agreements and the lifting of sanctions demanded from Moscow verified, careful steps, hybrid forms of regulation and extreme caution in the choice of means. An open demonstration of the position, as was the case in Syria, for example, the participation of Russian military personnel in armed actions on the side of the DPR and the LPR, and especially the armed assistance of the Russian Aerospace Forces would cost Moscow very dearly, both economically and politically. Syria did not fit into the paradigm about the “expansionist policy” of Russia, which was being advanced by the Western elites, and therefore was not perceived as the intersection of the “red line” requiring serious anti-Russian measures from the West.

It was in this connection that the instructions to Russian diplomats on how to respond to calls by international non-governmental organizations to receive work permits in the DPR and LPR indicated that it was necessary to respond in the spirit of Moscow not exercising control over the self-proclaimed republics, and therefore international workers should directly contact authorities of the DPR and LPR. At the same time, Moscow did not hide the opportunity to influence the Syrian leadership. Keeping distance from the most odious steps of Damascus (methods of warfare, attitude to international initiatives on the Syrian settlement, rhetoric against the armed opposition and the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria, etc.), Moscow nevertheless recognized that, if necessary, it can get from the Syrian leadership of various steps (as was the case when the LAS mission obtained permission to work in the SAR; export and destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons in 2013; resolutions of the UN Security Council on SAR; agreements in the framework of the Astana format, some of which Damascus perceived critically). It is on the basis of these considerations that Russia agreed to the role of one of the two co-chairs of the International Syria Support Group, which assumed pressure on the authorities of the SAR in favor of implementing the decisions of the Group. Thus, the demonstration of “implication” in the Syrian settlement, involvement in it was not so politically costly for Russia, and the Syrian crisis could be used by the Russian leadership to return positions in the international arena.

When deciding on active participation in resolving the Syrian conflict, the Russian leadership could not fail to take into account the internal situation in which it had to act.

Thus, after the Libyan drama, which in Russian society was linked to “Medvedev’s soft policy”, the country’s top leadership realized the impossibility of further demonstrating flexibility with respect to the steps of the West (in the minds of Russians it was the generalized “West” that overthrew M. Gaddafi, not a coalition of states which included, among other things, the countries of the region) in its policy of redrawing the geopolitical map of the Middle East to its liking. Moscow could not afford to contemplate detachedly the overthrow of B. Assad. In this case, it threatened to lose the support of the part of the population that was negatively disposed towards the West in general and the USA in particular. Russian public opinion demanded that V.V. Putin (Russia’s foreign policy, which, in accordance with the Constitution, is determined by the head of state [11], is personified), who again led the country, take a tough stance on the Syrian issue and prevent the overthrow of the next Middle Eastern regime.

 

1.4. Russia’s strategy to restore positions in the international arena

Building a strategy for the gradual restoration of Russia’s position in the international arena at the same time could not occur without taking into account real, not illusory, tasks in the field of security and geopolitics. The reality was such that it demanded priority restoration of positions in areas of historical influence — first of all, in the CIS countries, where the activity of Western countries was observed, aimed at reformatting this space in order to subordinate their own interests, including through bringing pro-Western-minded elites to power. Moscow did not forget that, according to Western analysts themselves, after the end of World War II, the United States tried to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, suppress popular movements in 20 countries, intervened in the election process — in 30 [12].

In order to understand the motives of Russian actions in Syria, it is also necessary to look at this conflict through the prism of the Ukrainian crisis, expressed in a coup d’état in Kiev in 2014, hotly supported by Western countries. The coup in Ukraine was painfully perceived by the Russian leadership. Violent foreign policy battles (it is enough to review the speeches of the Russian and American permanent representatives to the UN Security Council during the Kiev military operation in the Donbass), the rejection by Washington and Brussels of the return of the Crimea, sanctions imposed against Russia by the US and the European Union under the pretext of Russian aggression in Ukraine — all this finally convinced Moscow to that the West refuses to accept her as an equal partner, and, accordingly, to act through consideration of [Russia’s] interests. This, obviously, approved Moscow in the correctness of the chosen course towards rejection of B. Assad’s power overthrow.

If before the coup in Ukraine, Russia attached great importance to the issue of respect for the Constitution and the need to implement any statehood transformation in the legal field through the Basic Law, then after the Ukrainian events, the Western principle of interfering in the internal affairs of states began to be perceived by Russia even more painfully.

The consequence of this was the nuanced position of Russia on the political settlement of the crisis in the SAR. If up to 2014 the Russian Foreign Ministry allowed substantive negotiations on the so-called political transition in the SAR (just look at the wording of the Geneva communique of 2012 on the formation of the Transitional Governing Body, endowed with the full powers of the legislative and executive authorities [13]), then after 2014 [Russia’s] position on possible transformations of the political system of the SAR has tightened. Moscow actually led to the erosion of the position of the Geneva communique of 2012 on the formation of the Transitional Governing Body. Moscow was no longer ready for the creation of such a structure — the fears of the collapse of Syrian statehood, which would have followed if B. Assad transferred the key state powers to the opposition, increased.

Further steps of Russia and decisions taken at international sites confirm this. The UN Security Council resolution 2254, adopted in 2015, focused the political settlement in the SAR more on the constitutional process and the modification of Syrian statehood through specific constitutional mechanisms. It was about transition [of power] within a 6 month period to a “trustworthy, inclusive government on an extra-confessional basis and defining a schedule and procedure for drafting this constitution”, as well as about “holding free and fair elections in accordance with the new constitution within 18 months and organized under the supervision of the UN” [14]. This is a qualitative departure from the model that Western countries from 2011 to 2015 tried to impose with the support of some states in the region and with the active help of UN staff. Russia, taking a firm position in this matter, by 2017 made the majority of players realize the futility of trying to eliminate B. Assad through the political process. Moreover, it was at the initiative of Moscow in both the Astana and Geneva platforms that constitutional themes began to play a special role. In January 2017 during the International Meeting on Syria in Astana, the Russian side handed over the draft of the new SAR Constitution developed in Moscow, thus launching the process of discussing these issues [15]; at the same period in Geneva, S. de Mistura, at the insistence of Russia, focused on the priority promotion of the constitutional negotiation “basket” and developed proposals for the creation of a relevant working group [16].

The promotion of the constitutional track at the pace that Russia was counting on did not take place primarily because of the extremely tough position of the SAR leadership. If Moscow, in principle, did not oppose reformatting the political system of the SAR, insisting that this take place within the constitutional framework, then Damascus perceived the consolidation in the new Basic Law of provisions that curtail the powers of the head of state and security agencies, very wary and painful. During conversations with Russian diplomats, representatives of the military-political leadership of the SAR have consistently emphasized the lack of confidence in the UN and the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General on Syria. For example, in a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General and the UN Security Council Chairman in 2017, the SAR Foreign Minister V. Muallem noted that S. de Mistura “instead of being a mediator in solving the crisis, became part of it” [17]. Such a harsh rejection by the SAR authorities of issues related to a change in the constitutional foundations of the state, however, was in many ways a surprise to Moscow, provoking in the second half of 2017 — early 2018 certain disagreements between Syria and Russia, convinced of the need to advance the constitutional track.

The “Renaissance” of the constitutional theme occurred in the summer of 2018 and was determined by the success of Russia on the track of reaching agreements with opposition armed groups on reconciliation in key de-escalation zones — East Ghouta and Homs. The transition of these key areas under the control of the SAR government strengthened the positions of official Damascus and at the same time forced the adversaries of B. Assad to accelerate in finding ways to restart the political process — taking into account the increasingly narrowed possibilities for gaining at least some political advantages here.

Indeed, in parallel with the emergence of new Syrian settlement formats (the International Syria Support Group, the Astana format, and others), Moscow’s interests shifted from questions of a political transition to the subject of de-escalation and confidence-building measures. This allowed Moscow, firstly, to split up the bloc of countries that sought to overthrow B. Assad (primarily due to Turkey being drawn into cooperation in de-escalation zones), and secondly, to create conditions for withdrawing a group of [Russian] troops from the SAR by stabilizing the situation.

This forced the West to put permanent pressure on Damascus by returning to the subject of alleged use of chemical weapons by the SAR authorities (which twice — in 2017 and 2018 — led to Western “retaliation strikes”, which were carried out even before the completion of the investigations), as well as the constant maintenance of humanitarian issues afloat.

It is worth mentioning the personal-psychological factor that was present in the politics of Russia and reflected in the events in the SAR. In the context of cooling relations with the West (including the US and the EU), which reached its peak during the events in Ukraine, Moscow began to pay special attention to developing relations with the new centers of power. The development and strengthening of cooperation with the countries of the post-Soviet space, the Middle East and Asia — taking into account the mentality and specifics of these regions — required the head of state to build personal relations with the leaders of the respective countries. The latter were to see in Moscow an ally who would not give up on them due to some short-term reasons or under the pretext of their non-observance of human rights or humanitarian standards. V.V. Putin’s position on V.F. Yanukovych and B. Assad (and his regime) inspired many regional leaders, in contrast watching the indifferent attitude of the B. Obama administration towards the fate of H. Mubarak, who built close relations with Washington. It is characteristic that a positive perception of the prospects for the return of Moscow to the region as a key player was shown not only by Russia’s former allies (for example, Egypt, Syria, Iran), but also by some Gulf countries — for example,  the UAE and KSA, whose leaders, in conversations with the author’s participation, positively spoke up about a consistent line of Russia that was not subject to fluctuations. Such a position combining two components: the rejection of the implementation of transformations of state systems outside the constitutional field and the de facto firm support of an ally on all fronts (political and military) could not but arouse the approval of the leaders of states that for one reason or another felt vulnerable and did not rule out that [they] may be subject to aggressive action by the United States. A typical example is the approach publicly voiced during a visit to Moscow on July 24, 2017 by the Vice President and former Prime Minister of Iraq, the leader of the “Daawa” party N. Al-Maliki during a trip to Moscow in favor of strengthening Russia’s position in the region [18]. This looked particularly symptomatic against the background of the fact that the Shiites were obliged to obtain a serious role in the political life of Iraq for the American invasion.

The beginning in the fall of 2015 of the operation of the Russian Aerospace Forces against terrorists in the SAR strengthened Moscow’s position not only in the Syrian “dossier”, but also in the international arena as a whole, having served as a catalyst for the creation of new formats of Syrian settlement involving both Russia and the countries of the region — International Syria Support Group, Lausanne “Five”, Astana format.

It is important to note that Russia was the only state that was a member of all the collective formats of the Syrian settlement, both traditional (UN Security Council) and newly created (ISSG, Lausanne, Astana, Amman groups) [19], which determined a special, in many ways key role of Moscow in international cooperation to address the crisis. This was facilitated by a number of factors, the main of which are:

  1. The armed operation of Russia in the SAR
  2. The absence of openly expressed sympathies or antipathies towards certain countries of the region (unlike, for example, the D. Trump administration, which has sharply anti-Iranian positions), active separate work with them (Iran, Turkey, KSA, Egypt, United Arab Emirates , Qatar, Jordan, Israel).
  3. The rejection of bloc thinking, which allowed to build relations with both parties to the conflict (the government of the SAR / militants of the illegal armed groups), as well as [with] the participants in the crisis who did not fit into any of these categories (for example, the Kurdish Democratic Party, including self-defense units).
  4. Understanding the key role of Russian-American cooperation in resolving the Syrian conflict and stopping common challenges and threats, which allowed Moscow and Washington to carry on a dialogue even in conditions of a low level of bilateral relations, as well as hostile steps by the US towards Russia.
  5. Multi-track game on traditional (UNSC) and fundamentally new Syrian settlement sites (ISSG, Astana, Amman formats), as well as bilaterally with the parties to the conflict and their external sponsors.
  6. The nuanced combination of military and political methods of solving certain aspects of the conflict.

The firm position occupied by Moscow, expressed in the prevention of the adoption of the so-called “force resolutions” of the UN Security Council, as well as the deployment of additional military infrastructure in the SAR and the provision of armed support to the Syrian army, combined with the flexibility of actions at collective international negotiation platforms, made Russia’s policy particularly effective. Under these conditions, the United States and their allies were forced to intensify the use of already developed methods of exerting pressure on Moscow through human rights structures, the use of “chemical” topics in 2013 and re-return to them in 2017 and 2018 with strikes against SAR, double mobilization of controlled UN structures, international agencies and organizations (including the OPCW).

 

1.5. Moscow’s diplomatic initiatives and their relationship with the goals and objectives of the operation of the Russian Aerospace Force in the SAR.

In late August — early September 2017, the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense of Russia lined up their actions on the Syrian track, based on the imperative of creating conditions for the withdrawal of the main part of the group [of Russian troops] from the SAR. In this regard, the need to intensify the political process of the Syrian settlement has increased. The inter-Syrian negotiations, held in Geneva under the auspices of the UN, did not provide the desired pace and did not allow to achieve results that could create conditions for the withdrawal of the main part of the armed group of the Russian Federation from the SAR. The [Syrian] government did not show willingness to compromise during the dialogue with the emigre opposition delegation (National Coalition, High Negotiating Committee), while opponents of Damascus insisted solely on the departure of B. Assad and were not able to offer a well-developed political program. The agenda was more focused on the topic of political transition, and the positional documents developed in this connection by the UN were very far from the internal Syrian realities.

Carrying out the set-up of the [Russian] leadership, Moscow initiated the intensification of the process of political settlement of the conflict in the SAR and assumed the task of developing a sequence of appropriate steps.

Back in October 2017, the concept of holding the Congress of the Peoples of Syria was developed. It was assumed that the event will serve to solve the problem of enhancing the inter-Syrian dialogue on the territory of the SAR. In accordance with the document, the Congress was to be held at Khmeymim airfield and gather up to 2,000 people — representatives of the government and the opposition, as well as various confessional, national, tribal groups [20]. The idea of the initiative was to stimulate the inter-Syrian dialogue, while ensuring the widest possible participation of various sectors of society in it. This, according to the plan, was supposed to give grounds for the Russian leadership to announce the end of the antiterrorist operation in the SAR and withdraw the main part of the Russian military group.

Following this logic, the developers of the Concept provided as one of its results the definition of a schedule and procedure for drafting a new constitution, holding free and fair elections in accordance with the new constitution, while respecting the principles of public administration and the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, while providing all Syrians rights to participate [21]. The first draft document outlined the task of engaging in the work of the Congress of the guarantors of the Astana process (Turkey, Iran), as well as Jordan, China, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Egypt and several European states.

The initiative to hold the Congress had, inter alia, the domestic political dimension associated with the reluctance of the Russian leadership to repeat the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan (and its own in Afghanistan) and “got stuck” in the Syrian conflict, which was fraught with constant financial costs and growing discontent of the [Russian] population due to losses in the forces of the Armed Forces of Russia.

The concept of holding the Congress of the people of Syria implied the involvement of the UN in the implementation of this initiative. In this regard, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Syria S. de Mistura was acquainted [with this initiative] during his visit to Geneva by Russian Deputy Minister of Defense A.V. Fomin on October 13, 2017.

The document’s response was a letter from S. de Mistura to the UN Secretary-General dated October 15, 2017, in which the Special Envoy presented his own analysis of the Russian initiative. S. de Mistura held the idea that to legitimize it will allow an exceptionally strong gesture on the part of B. Assad towards his opponents. Otherwise, the Russian “formula will be unviable” [22]. As such a gesture, the Special Envoy suggested that B. Assad “publicly and clearly express adherence to the constitutional process and the holding of elections under UN supervision” [23]. In this case, S. de Mistura continued, the Congress “could become one of the driving forces” of the political process. The same idea was contained in the letter of S. de Mistura addressed to A.V. Fomin, in which the Special Envoy linked the possibility of his participation in the Congress with the “retention of the UN right to add to the Constitutional Commission additional technical experts and elements of the opposition mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, who will not be adequately represented at the Congress and [who] should receive UN technical support” [24].

In general, the UN was indeed cautious and jealous about the plans of Russia to hold the Congress, seeing in them an attempt to seize the initiative in the field of political settlement of the crisis in the SAR. The UN Secretariat, generally focused on the interests of the West and the opposition sponsored by it, was extremely concerned about the prospect of organizing an event with the participation of the SAR government and the opposition that is not part of the Er-Riyadh bloc. In this case, the UN was deprived of any control over the political process of the Syrian settlement, which would go beyond the framework set by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Understanding this, the Russian side consistently explained to the UN Secretary-General the international legal context within which the Congress was being prepared: the event complied with the principles set out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, during which it will focus on constitutional reform so that the UN can capitalize and develop [it] during the inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva.

Russia, taking on the role of the initiator of the Congress and the leader in its organization, nevertheless, took measures to impart a collective dimension to the event, choosing the Astana format (Russia, Iran, Turkey) for this purpose. At the same time, there were numerous contacts with other interested parties.

In November-December 2017, Russia and President V.V. Putin, who personally promoted the initiative of convening the Congress, assumed the role of the undisputed leader in the promotion of this political project.

In November-December 2017, an unprecedented number of contacts initiated by Russia took place, the aim of which was to accumulate a critical mass of support for the idea of a Congress of national dialogue from international players. This was supposed to serve to legitimize the Russian initiative and ensure that the UN Secretary General takes a decision on sending his Special Envoy for Syria to the Congress.

The first step in this direction was the demonstration of a reduction in the military component of Russian participation in the Syrian settlement, with increasing interest in the political track.

The diplomatic marathon of Moscow was opened by the President of the SAR B. Assad’s visit to Russia on November 20, 2017, during which V.V. Putin publicly voiced the nuance of the Russian position on the Syrian National Dialogue Congress: “I would like to discuss with you the basic principles of organizing the political process, holding the Syrian Peoples Congress supported by you… state of affairs and prospects for the development of the situation, including your vision of the political process, which, as it seems to us, certainly should ultimately be carried out under the auspices of the UN. We will count on the active participation of the UN both during the process itself and at the final stage” [25].

After the visit of B. Assad and the consolidation of a common understanding of the goals and principles of the Congress, V.V. Putin’s multiple personal contacts with the heads of interested states followed. These are telephone conversations between the President and the Emir of Qatar T. Al-Thani (November 20, 2017) [26], Egyptian President A. al-Sisi (November 21, 2017) [27], KSA King S. Ben Abdelazis al-Saud (November 21, 2017 ) [28], the Prime Minister of Israel (November 21, 2017), the US President D. Trump (November 21, 2017).

An important link in these efforts was their Russian-American dimension. In this context, it is necessary to mention the Statement of the Presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States of America dated November 11, 2017, which was made in Da Nang “on the margins” of the APEC member countries conference. It contained three elements: fighting ISIS, de-escalation zones (first of all South), as well as a political process centered on “commitment to the Geneva process, constitutional reform and elections in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254” [29]. Thus, Moscow not only took a step towards keeping Washington in the position of the need for cooperation with Moscow, but also confirmed American support for the need to prioritize the constitutional track in the framework of the political process to resolve the crisis in the SAR. A separate area is consolidation based on the support of the Congress within the framework of the Astana “troika”. A Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit meeting on November 22, 2017 was a step in this direction, within the framework of which the Joint Statement of the Presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey was adopted. The document called for representatives of the “SAR government and the opposition to take a constructive part in the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi” [30]. This passage was important from the point of view of rallying the Astana “troika” based on the support of the initially Russian initiative to convene the Congress, which strengthened Moscow’s negotiating positions in the dialogue with the UN and increased the chances of S. de Mistura’s presence at the Congress.

These efforts allowed V.V. Putin to declare on December 6, 2017 that, in general, as a result, the military operation ended with the complete defeat of terrorists. Under these conditions, a new stage has begun — “the beginning of the political process, the creation and holding of… the Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue” [31].

The visit of V.V. Putin to the Khmeimim airbase on December 11, 2017 and the order given to the Minister of Defense and the Chief of General Staff to begin the withdrawal of the Russian group of troops from Syria to permanent locations [32] became significant. Moscow openly announced that it is counting on a political solution to the crisis.

In December, Russia’s activity in mobilizing broad international and regional support for the Congress continued. It is worth mentioning the Russian-Turkish summit talks (December 11, 2017) [33], the Russian-Egyptian summit talks (December 11, 2017), telephone conversations between V.V. Putin and US President D. Trump (December 17, 2017) [34], S. de Mistura’s visit to Moscow and S.V. Lavrov and S.K. Shoigu meeting with S. de Mistura in Moscow (December 21, 2017) [35], telephone conversations of V.V. Putin with the President of Turkey (December 22, 2017) [36].

The result was that the statement on the results of the 8th International Meeting on Syria in Astana on December 21-22, 2017 included a paragraph stating that the upcoming Syrian National Dialogue Congress is an initiative that aims to give impetus to the negotiation process under the auspices of the UN in Geneva and promote an inter-Syrian agreement based on the principle consensus [37]. This paragraph was of particular importance in the context of the legitimization of the Congress through giving it a form of collective initiative, as well as [creating] the difficulty of attempts by the United Nations and the West to counteract the organization of the event.

The task of attracting the UN to the Congress, set before the Russian diplomats, remained relevant until the very opening of the event. The final decision on this issue was taken personally by the UN Secretary-General. Moreover, in exchange for this, A. Guterres demanded the inclusion in the final document of the Congress, which was based on the “12 points” developed earlier in the framework of the inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva, of a passage giving the UN the right to form the Constitutional Commission. Indeed, the final document [called] “the final statement of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress” stated that “the final decision on the mandate, procedure, powers, rules of procedure and criteria for the selection of members of the constitutional commission will be made within the framework of the Geneva process under the UN auspices” [38].

Securing the UN overseeing the process of forming the Constitutional Commission, which provided an opportunity to delegate members of the West-controlled opposition to it, allowed the UN to support the Congress (the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy attended the event), and external players — to send observers (China, Kazakhstan, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, the United States, France).

The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, held on January 29-30, 2018, was a truly unprecedented event in terms of the composition of delegates. About 1,500 Syrians took part in it: representatives of the Government, various groups of the Syrian opposition, civil society, youth and women’s organizations. Despite attempts by the West to present the case in such a way as if the Congress was aimed at usurping political initiative and undermining the Geneva process under the auspices of the UN, in reality the situation was different. The outcome of the event, which was based on the “12 points” developed in the framework of negotiations under the auspices of the UN, allowed to legitimize the results of the Geneva process by approving it by representatives of a wide range of Syrian society. It was on this document that the “Final Statement of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress” was based, supplemented by a paragraph that decided to create a constitutional commission with the participation of the government and the opposition “to prepare constitutional reform as a contribution to the political settlement process under the UN auspices in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254” [39]. The “Appeal by the participants of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress” called for international humanitarian organizations and the international community to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need, as well as “additional assistance to help rebuild basic infrastructure, including social and economic facilities, and organize large-scale demining activities” [40].

The holding of the Congress contributed to securing Russian priorities at the international level in the context of resolving the crisis in Syria. The presence of S. de Mistura at the event allowed to legitimize the Congress, entrusting Russia with the role of a key player in the Syrian political “field”, and for the Astana “troika” — the role of a locomotive in promoting the Syrian political settlement process. Distribution by the Russian delegation on February 14, 2018 of the “Final Statement” as an official document of the UN Security Council [41] inscribed the results of Sochi into the broad international legal context for resolving the Syrian crisis.

Another important outcome of the Congress is the formation of an “alternative” bloc of the Syrian opposition that took part in the event: H. Manaa (“Kamkh”), K. Jameel (Popular Front for Change and Liberation, Moscow Group), R. Cassis (Movement for Plural Society, Astana group), A. Jarba (Syrian tomorrow). The decision of the Er-Riyadh bloc to refrain from participating in the Congress (10 votes “in favor”, 12 — “against”) freed up the political space for the opposition, which was not invited to negotiations under the auspices of the UN in Geneva because of the desire of the West to position the Er-Riyadh group as the sole legitimate representative of the Damascus opponents in the negotiations. The appearance of the Sochi “quartet” weakened the Er-Riyadh bloc and its external curators, strengthening Russia’s position in the Syrian negotiating “dossier”. It was this circumstance that made the head of the Er-Riyadh opposition group N. Hariri, who did not participate in the event, with the support of Western sponsors, pursue the idea of the functioning of the Constitutional Committee under the auspices of the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria S. de Mistura [42]. In this case, he would still have chances to participate in the process of constitutional construction. The West actively supported this formulation of the question. The withdrawal of the constitutional construction process from the UN “umbrella” could finally deprive the external opposition sponsors of the opportunity to influence the process of drafting a new Basic Law, and, therefore, would reduce their chances of securing their own interests within the framework of the principles of the future Syrian statehood.

At the same time, it cannot be said that the work on the creation of the Constitutional Commission did not encounter any obstacles. This process progressed very slowly, difficulties arose on both sides. Recall that the decision to establish the Commission was made on the basis of the Congress in Sochi in January 2018, but up to the 9th International Meeting on Syria in Astana on May 14-15, 2018 there was no progress on this track. A triple US-British-French missile strike on Syria on April 14, 2018 made it possible for Russia to legitimately say that “the attack threw back efforts to advance the political process” [43] and it will take time to overcome the consequences of this aggression against a sovereign state.

The triple aggression against Syria was not the only reason due to which the formation of the [Constitutional] Commission did not take place within the required time frame. The rivalry within the framework of the Astana trio of guarantors for obtaining a “controlling stake” within the framework of the eventual structure did not contribute to the rapid progress on this track. The Syrian side, which would have a majority within the Commission, was [thus] able to determine the direction of the work of the structure and, accordingly, received leverage on determining the parameters of Syrian statehood.

The Special Envoy (more precisely, his office), following the logic imposed by the West, proposed to form a Commission on the principle of “two-thirds” (1/3 — the Syrian government, 1/3 — the opposition, 1/3 — “civil society”). The proposal contained a trick: most experts of the so-called civil society, who collaborated with S. de Mistura and his team (R. Daudi, I. Daraji, S. Dallia, R. Turkmani, A. Sarraj, M. Gal-Kalaa and others), were either affiliated with the opposition or were not associated directly with the government of Syria. Thus, purely arithmetically, the office of the Special Envoy de facto led to the fact that representatives of Damascus would remain in the Commission in the minority, which would be opposed by the majority, consisting of oppositionists and their obvious and less overt supporters. This not only did not correspond to the interests of Russia and Iran as two guarantors of the Astana process. This fundamentally did not correspond to the situation “on the ground”: all new territories passed under the control of the SAR government — both as a result of the antiterrorist operation and as a result of agreements on evacuating irreconcilable militants from the blocked areas reached by the Russian military with the illegal armed formations. Expanding the control of the SAR authorities over the territory of the country should somehow affect the balance of power in the political process. Western experts of the Office of the Special Envoy in this sense were somewhat delayed in the past, continuing to think in terms of the period prior to the start of the operation of the Russian Aerospace Force in Syria. In Damascus, they perfectly saw and correctly interpreted the logic of the UN, and therefore they looked without enthusiasm to the prospects of the UN’s full-format involvement in the work of the Constitutional Commission, and even more so of giving it special powers to manage its work.

However, despite the Western strike on Syria, Russian diplomats continued to work actively with the Syrian government in favor of Damascus to send to the UN a list of candidates for the [Constitutional] Commission. The beginning of this work was promoted by the dynamics “on the ground” and, in particular, the transition under the control of the SAR government with the help of Russian military negotiators of the blocked regions (East Ghouta, Homs, East Kalamoun, South of Damascus). The intensification of the political process in the context of strengthening the positions of official Damascus was in the interests of the Syrian government and the parties supporting it, since under these conditions there was more leverage to pursue interests in the context of determining the parameters of the future power configuration of the SAR.

Under these conditions, Russia was able to get the Syrian government to send to the UN a list of government candidates for inclusion in the Constitutional Commission.

The impetus for this was the meeting of V.V. Putin with B. Assad in Sochi on May 17, 2018, during which it was stated that a favorable situation had developed to invigorate the political process, and under these conditions “the Syrian President decided to send his part of the delegation to form the Constitutional Committee, which should work on the Basic Law of Syria” [44]. B. Assad during a press conference in advance confirmed the position of Damascus on the question of the powers of the Commission, which, according to him, will be engaged in “the discussion of amendments to the current Constitution” [45]. Thus, for the Syrian leadership, it was exclusively about work on changes to the existing Basic Law of 2012, but not about the development of a new one. It is clear that on the way to forming the Constitutional Committee there were still many obstacles to overcome, and also to find a difficult compromise between the three Astana guarantors — Moscow, Tehran and Ankara — on the issue of political “balance” within the framework of the eventual structure.

The advantage of Moscow’s policy was flexibility, which became a consequence of the rejection of bloc thinking. This allowed the Russian representatives to play a multi-level game, as well as use the UN Security Council to legitimize own efforts. None of the [other] players had such an advantage. For example, the United States, which broke almost all ties with the Syrian government and focused on the anti-Iranian agenda, was limited in maneuver. Russia, on the contrary, pursued a multi-vector policy: maintained a dynamic of the dialogue with the United States, actively worked with the countries of the region with an emphasis on the Astana “troika”, as well as KSA, Egypt and Qatar, held talks both with sponsors of the armed opposition, and directly with the militants, tightly coordinated actions with the Syrian government, and also — through giving own efforts a collective character — mobilized the resources of the UN and its Security Council. This gave Russia a special role in the conflict resolution process in the SAR, and also secured a special place for Moscow in the emerging world order, the outlines of which are still being drawn and which acquires features of polycentricity. Obviously, in order to preserve and enhance the potential accumulated by Russia, it will be necessary to continue to use the “natural advantages” of Russian military diplomatic activity to conduct flexible, focused on specific “projects”, but at the same time consistently tuned to upholding long-term priorities policy in dealing with crisis situations [both] in Syria and in the Middle East.


[1] Main foreign policy outcomes of 2017. URL: http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3034243

[2] Zakaria F. Circling the Wagons on Syria / F. Zakaria // Time. 2012. 9 July

[3] The state of trade and economic relations of Russia and Syria. Reference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. September 2, 2017.

[4] Nicaragua: I’m the Champ // The Time. 1948. 15 November. Vol. LII No. 20 URL: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/0,9263,7601481115,00.html

[5] UN Security Council Resolution 2165. July 14, 2014. UN Document S/RES/2165 (2014).

[6] UN Security Council Resolution 2332. 21 December 2016. UN Document S/RES/2332 (2016).

[7] UN Security Council Resolution 2393. December 19, 2017 UN Document S/RES/2393 (2017).

[8] Statement by the International Syria Support Group. Vein. May 17, 2016. P. 1.

[9] Answers of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia S.V. Lavrov to the questions of mass-media regarding the results of the meeting between the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin and the UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy K. Annan, Moscow, 18 July 2012. URL: http://www.mid.ru/web/guest/maps/sy/-/asset_publisher/9fcjSOwMERcf/content/id/148858

[10] Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at the Korber Foundation, Berlin, July 13, 2017. URL: http://www.mid.ru/web/guest/meropriyatiya_s_uchastiem_ministra/-/asset_publisher/xK1BhB2bUjd3/content/id/2814020

[11] The Constitution of the Russian Federation. Article 80, paragraph 3.

[12] Global Research. US Empire Reaches Breaking Point. Greatest Threat to Humanity. Time to End It. 2014, 10 July.

[13] Final Communique of the Action Group for Syria. 30 June 2012. P. 3.

[14] UN Security Council Resolution 2254. December 18, 2015. UN Document S/RES/2254 (2015).

[15] (text in Arabic — see photo from the book)

Constitution of the Syrian Republic. February 2017. Project.

[16] The Creation of Constitutional and Legal Task Forces. March 2017 (UN document developed by the Office of the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria following the 4th round of inter-Syrian talks).

[17] Letter Dated 17 December 2017 From H.E. Walid al-Moallem, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the Syrian Arab Republic, to H.E. Antonio Guterres the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and H.E. Koro Bessho the President of the Security Council, Regarding the Position of the Syrian Arab Republic on the Course and Outcomes of the Eighth Round of Geneva Talks. December 2017. PM/2017/469. P.3.

[18] (link text in Arabic — see photo from the book)

N. Maliki in Moscow called for the strengthening of the role of Russia in Iraq and the region.

[19] The author intentionally does not mention the «Group of Friends of Syria», which was originally created to legitimize the line to overthrow B. Assad, and Russia’s participation in it, respectively, was not envisaged.

[20] The concept of the Congress of the people of Syria. Working paper of the Ministry of Defense of Russia. October 13, 2017.

[21] The concept of the Congress of the people of Syria. Working paper of the Ministry of Defense of Russia. October 13, 2017.

[22] Letter to his Excellency Secretary-General A. Guterres From UN Special Envoy to Syria S. de Mistura. 15 October 2017.

[23] The concept of the Congress of the people of Syria. Working paper of the Ministry of Defense of Russia. October 13, 2017.

[24] Letter to his Excellency Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation A. Fomin from UN Special Envoy to Syria S. de Mistura. 14 October 2017.

[25] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a working visit to Russia. November 21, 2017. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56135

[26] Telephone conversation with Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, November 20, 2017. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56134

[27] RIA Novosti: Putin held a telephone conversation with the president of Egypt. 21.11.2017 URL: https://ria.ru/world/20171121/1509287257.html

[28] Putin discussed with the Saudi king the situation in Syria. 21.11.2017. URL: https://vz.ru/news/2017/11/21/896266.html

[29] Statement by the Presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States of America. November 11, 2017. Danang. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5252

[30] Joint statement by the Presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey. Sochi. November 22, 2017.

[31] President on situation in Syria. December 6, 2017. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56321

[32] Vladimir Putin visited Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. December 11, 2017. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56351

[33] Russian-Turkish talks. December 11, 2017. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56359

[34] URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56398

[35] Press release on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu’s meeting with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. December 21. URL: http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3000085

[36] Telephone conversation with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan. December 22, 2017. URL: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56470

[37] Joint Statement by Iran, Russia and Turkey on the International Meeting on Syria in Astana. 21-22 December 2017.

[38] Final statement by the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. Sochi, January 30, 2018. UN Document S/2018.2011/. P.3.

[39] Final statement by the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. Sochi, January 30, 2018. UN Document S/2018.2011/. P.4.

[40] Address by the participants of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, Sochi, January 30, 2018. P.1.

[41] Letter Dated 14 February 2018 from the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council. UN Document S/2018/121.

[42] Hariri Stresses Political Process Must Remain in Geneva and Full Implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254. 1 February 2018. URL: http://en.etilaf.org/all-news/news/hariri-stresses-political-process-must-remain-in-geneva-full-implementation-of-unsc-resolution-2254.html

[43] Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference following talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Moscow, April 28, 2018. URL: http://www.mid.ru/press_service/minister_speeches/-/asset_publisher/7OvQR5KJWVmR/content/id/3202565

[44] Statement on the results of the Russian-Syrian negotiations. Sochi, May 17, 2018.

[45] Statement on the results of the Russian-Syrian negotiations. Sochi, May 17, 2018.

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