Diplomatic Channels: Assad and the rebels may be deadlocked but their backers aren't

Dialogue taking place behind the scenes now will shape Syria’s second civil war

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The Independent Online

As Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, ranted at the start of the Geneva peace talks, repeatedly shouting down UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s protestations that he was way over the allocated time, another person on the panel could be seen tapping his wristwatch. It was not John Kerry or William Hague: the man with the expression of exasperation on his face was Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, the power that has kept Bashar al-Assad’s regime from collapse.

A few days later Mr Lavrov was stating that a humanitarian aid convoy, blocked by the regime, should be allowed in for the people trapped in Homs. A few days after that came the news that the head of the Syrian opposition has been invited to Moscow for talks. Ahmad Jarba, in turn, was eager to assure Russia that the “historic” ties between the two countries will continue long after Mr Assad has gone.

Last week, Turkish forces carried out military strikes across the border in Syria. It was not aimed at the Syrian regime, whose supposed threat led to Nato positioning Patriot missile batteries on the border at Ankara’s request, but the most potent of the rebel groups.

It was the second time in recent months that the Turkish military has attacked the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), a group inspired by al-Qa’ida. It came days after a visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Iran, describing it as his “second home”: Tehran, of course, has been a staunch ally of Damascus and been denounced for being so by Ankara.

As the talks in Geneva adjourned last week there are readjustments, small but important, in the international realpolitik behind the Syrian civil war. Calculations are being made as the conflict enters its third year about gains and losses, what can be salvaged by who after the bloodshed ends.

Geneva II concluded its opening chapter without, as the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi pointed out, any substantive gains. He went on to say that he was satisfied with proceedings so far. He was entirely justified in saying the fact that the two sides turned up to talk was itself a huge achievement. That they did so sitting in the same room without trying to brain each other was also a mark of success, as was the fact that neither side stormed off. They are due to meet again in around 10 days.

There has not been, of course, a sudden outbreak of amity. They were there because of heavy pressure from their foreign backers. According to senior rebel figures, the US and UK threatened to withdraw support if they failed to attend; and they did not want to be beholden to Saudi Arabia as their sole big sponsors. Moscow has huge leverage over the regime, as arms suppliers and the wielder of UN vetoes.

American and British diplomats acknowledge that Geneva II would not have taken place, and President Assad would not have given up his chemical arsenal, had it not been for the Russians. The opposition, too, now recognises the advantage of cultivating the Kremlin. Mr Jarba holds: “Our army has been trained by their army, so our relations will be maintained with Russia.” This will include, he added, Moscow keeping its only Mediterranean port of Tartus.

“When it is in Russia’s interest to throw Assad under a bus, they’ll throw him under a bus”, was the view of a Western diplomat in Geneva. That may be wishful thinking, but it is unsurprising that the outside backers of the two sides are also talking to each other. Perhaps the most significant is the rapprochement with Turkey. As guests of the Indonesian government in the Bali Democracy Forum of international leaders, in November 2012, I watched as Mr Erdogan refused even to look at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he lashed the Assad regime and its backers over the conflict. Iran’s then-President was seated as far away from him as possible, at the other end of the podium.

Last week Mr Erdogan, in his visit to Iran, spoke effusively about his hosts. Although the primary focus was economic, Syria was also under discussion. Afterwards, the Turkish Prime Minister stressed his foreign ministry will liaise with its Tehran counterparts; the Iranian government had expressed deep concern, he said, about extremists going into Syria through Turkey. The Turkish action against Isis was not undertaken to accommodate just the Iranians; the threat of terrorism has been an increasingly worrying factor. Western governments have repeatedly expressed alarm at the prospect of their nationals returning from jihad in Syria to carry out bombings: James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence in the US the latest to do so.

Ankara had been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to foreign jihadists getting into northern Syria, as well as allowing supplies to flow to al-Qa’ida-linked groups fighting the Kurdish PYD militia. But security agencies have now begun to make arrests after the alleged discovery of bomb plots inside Turkey; among the offices raided were those of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, some of whose members have been accused of carrying out work for the extremists.

Geneva II will not end the conflict in Syria in the immediate future. And, even when it does end, al-Qa’ida and its allies will have to be tackled. The dialogues taking place behind the scenes now will shape the alliances being formed over Syria’s second civil war.