Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Russia Seizes Syria Diplomacy Reins

By Bradley Hanlon and Bryan Amoroso

Key Takeaway: Russia is accelerating its efforts to subvert the Syrian political process by establishing a new diplomatic framework that sets conditions to expel the U.S. from Northern Syria. Russia announced its intent to host delegates from all major opposition, ethnic, and tribal factions at a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” in Sochi on November 18. Russia may exploit the conference to broker a wider reconciliation deal between the Bashar al Assad Regime and the Syrian Kurdish YPG under conditions that preclude long-term U.S. influence in Syria.

Russia will reportedly host a political conference called the “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” in Sochi on November 18. Russian media claims that the conference will include up to 1,500 participants representing major political and armed opposition groups, local councils, tribal gatherings, and various factions of Syrian Kurds.[1] The Russian Foreign Ministry published an official list of invitees that includes the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its rival Kurdish National Council (KNC); the exiled High Negotiations Committee (HNC) backed by Saudi Arabia and the Bashar al Assad regime-tolerated Moscow and Cairo Platforms; and armed anti-Assad opposition groups including the Southern Front.[2] It remains unclear which if any of these groups will attend the conference, although the public invitations are likely intended to signal inclusiveness. Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari also stressed the Assad regime’s willingness to participate.[3] Russia will reportedly use the venue to propose constitutional reforms, the formation of a transitional government that retains Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and new municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections for Syria by 2021, according to unidentified sources familiar with the conference.[4]

The conference, if successful, will undermine or coopt international efforts to reach a political settlement to the Syrian Civil War. Russia has used alternative diplomatic venues - such as the trilateral Astana Talks with Turkey and Iran - to capture and shape the UN Geneva Process. Russia uses these measures to demonstrate its legitimacy as an international arbiter while simultaneously ensuring a favorable political outcome that preserves its interests in the Syrian Civil War. Russia could also use the conference to broker a deal with the Syrian Kurds at the expense of the U.S. in Northern Syria. Russia is reportedly prepared to offer federal status to the Syrian Kurds in exchange for their wider reconciliation with the Assad Regime.[5] The Syrian Kurdish PYD has previously been barred from participation in political negotiations at the Geneva Talks at Turkey’s insistence. Russia reportedly excluded Turkey from active participation in the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue - likely to encourage meaningful engagement by the Syrian Kurds.[6] The outcome of these negotiations could include an agreement that constrains or ultimately expels the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition from Northern Syria.

Russia has recently deepened its increased cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish PYD to assert itself as a viable partner ahead of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue. The Russian Armed Forces reportedly assumed full control of the Menagh Military Airbase north of Aleppo City on October 27 following a withdrawal by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Russia previously deployed military personnel to Menagh Airbase and nearby Tel Rifaat on October 20 to preempt military operations by Turkey against the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in Western Aleppo Province.[7]  Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov also met with officials from the Syrian Kurdish PYD in Qamishli in Hasaka Province on October 18 to discuss Syria’s future political outcome.[8] Russian Senator Ziad Sabsabi conducted a near-simultaneous visit to Qamishli in coordination with the Russian Ministry of Defense to secure the release of twenty-one Russian Chechens and Dagestanis from Afrin Canton.[9] Russia has also mounted long-standing efforts to generate a unified bloc of Syrian Kurds. Russian Gen. Alexander Dvornikov hosted a conference for representatives from 24 Syrian Kurdish political parties - including the PYD and KNC - at the Hmeymim Airbase on the Syrian Coast in December 2016.[10] Russia nonetheless faces challenges from its partner in the Assad Regime. Assad reportedly rejected calls to consider federalism and favorable constitutional reforms for the Syrian Kurds by Russia in October 2016.[11] The upcoming Syrian Congress on National Dialogue in Sochi will likely encounter similar hurdles. Russia nonetheless stands to use its leadership of the political process to further subvert the future influence of the U.S. in Syria.

[1] https://ria(.)ru/syria/20171031/1507926606.html
[2] http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2927253