Weaving a political solution in Syria requires strenuous and creative efforts that almost need a miracle to succeed. It demands tough negotiations, enormous pressure, and thorny compromises. With overlapping conflicting roles and old and emerging obstacles, we are witnessing one of the most complex crises the world has faced in the recent era.
The picture would have certainly been different if one party had declared victory by a knockout and imposed a unilateral solution. If the Russian side can be named the first player on this complex stage, it cannot be considered as the only player. It has partners whose interests must be taken into account. The Syrian file is one of many files on the table of its relations with the West, especially with the United States.
Syria has an important position in the coup led by Vladimir Putin against the world of the only superpower. But it is early to believe that the Kremlin is interested in a complete victory in Syria, even if it has lost its relationship with Israel, Turkey, and the West. Putin’s calculations go beyond the borders of the Syrian theater.
There is no doubt that the Russian thread will be the most important component of the solution rug. Moscow is a mandatory crossing point for any permanent solution in Syria, and that is certainly acknowledged by US National Security Adviser John Bolton and UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is about to leave the theater.
The Russian thread is not enough, as Moscow is neither in a position to bear the burden of rebuilding Syria nor it is able to do so. Moreover, it is hard to believe that Western countries are willing to participate in the reconstruction of Syria, if this role is limited to polishing the Russian victory there and just normalizing the situation under Moscow’s umbrella, without restraining the influence of Iran, which used its militias to prevent the overthrowing of the Syrian regime.
Syrian regime did not make concessions when it was weak; so how would it provide them after ground equations have changed in its favor?
The Russian thread is necessary, so is the American thread. The United States has a military presence in eastern Syria and has recently chosen to step up the pressure to push Iranian militias out of the country.
US pressure will start a new phase of escalation in the first week of November when Washington returns to impose the “harshest sanctions ever” against Tehran, which no longer hides the scale of its economic difficulties.
Syria’s political solution rug also needs a European thread, a Turkish thread, an Iranian thread, an Arab thread, and an Israeli thread, at least in terms of security arrangements. The quartet summit in Istanbul, which gathered the leaders of Russia, France, and Germany, as well as the president of the host country, could be put within the framework of the quest to find those threads.
The summit called for the formation of the Syrian constitution drafting committee to meet by the end of the year. Participants underlined the need to create conditions throughout Syria for a safe and voluntary return of refugees, to facilitate humanitarian access to the country, to impose a permanent ceasefire and to continue fighting extremists.
There is no doubt that the summit itself revealed the need for partners, albeit at different levels. Putin needs a European partnership to provide an umbrella for the solution because it could pave the way for America’s engagement under such an umbrella. Turkey also needs European partners to strengthen its position and to balance Iran’s influence on one hand and Russia’s role on the other.
France and Germany also want to participate to emphasize that Europe has not lost its role due to Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union and to warn Italy and other countries against defying the EU’s spirit and controls.
A quick meeting in Istanbul is not enough to resolve differences in the accounts. The press conference that followed the summit revealed the divergences. Angela Merkel stressed that there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis.
“At the end of this political process, there must be free elections involving all Syrians, including those living abroad,” she said. President Emmanuel Macron rushed to support the German chancellor’s proposal and urged Russia to “exert very clear pressure on the Syrian regime.”
For his part, Putin emphasized the fight against terrorism and hoped that Turkey would soon complete the establishment of a demilitarized zone in Idlib. As for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said: “The Syrian people at home and abroad” will determine the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, underscoring the fight against “terrorists” in northern Syria, in reference to the Kurdish organizations.
The outcome of the Istanbul summit is supposed to be at the table of the “small group” meeting in London. The group includes the US, France, Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, in addition to De Mistura. Attempts to establish coexistence between the necessary threads will also be present on other dates, including the expected summit between Putin and Donald Trump on the sidelines of France’s World War I commemoration.
The Syrian file is likely to occupy a prominent place in light of the results of Bolton’s visit to Moscow. The Russian-US dialogue continues, confirmed by Trump’s invitation to Putin to visit Washington, even if China seems to be present in this invitation.
The same file will be tackled when De Mistura submits on November 19 his final briefing to the Security Council on the results of his efforts to resolve the political crisis and his failure to convince Damascus to facilitate the formation of the constitutional committee.
Sewing Syria’s solution rug will not be easy. It is not enough to arrange a coexistence between the Sochi track and the Geneva route. The Syrian regime did not make concessions when it was weak; so how would it provide them after the equations on the ground have changed in its favor?
What about Iran’s position, which is preparing for an extraordinary round of US pressure? Can Putin receive from Iran what is enough to justify the US and European involvement in the solution rug?
We are facing a very complex crisis with internal, regional and international dimensions. The solution requires pressure and patience, preparing documents and concluding major understandings. It almost needs a miracle.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan’s Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.