Russia, Iran and Turkey have agreed to broker peace talks between Syrian rebels and the Assad regime. Middle East expert, Maysam Behravesh, says this is an unprecedented and unique initiative.
DW: On Tuesday, in Moscow, the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Russia discussed the latest developments in Syria, without America's participation. News coming out of the meeting indicates that they agreed on the continuation of the Assad regime. How do you assess that?
Maysam Behravesh: Indeed, the trilateral meeting was an unprecedented and unique initiative by virtue of it conspicuously excluding the United States, as well as Saudi Arabia, two important players in the Syria crisis, from the negotiations over its fate. While Russia, Iran and Turkey all have tense relations with the US at the moment, over a host of domestic and international issues, they are trying to reassert their position in the conflict. But they are also trying to reassert their position more broadly in the region, through building on the momentum created by the developments on the ground in Syria, particularly the recapture of Aleppo and talks on the evacuation of civilians and rebels from the city.
In other words, the Assad regime's conquest of Aleppo, together with its foreign backers, has led to the marginalization of certain actors vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There are two other factors contributing to the emergence of this alternative dynamic; first, the long-standing reluctance of the Obama administration to engage deeply in the Syria crisis, and resolve or even manage it, and second, the imminent departure of the current US administration and arrival of a new team to the White House led by Donald Trump. There is an urge on the part of all these actors to set, at least, the general contours of the conflict before the new leadership takes office in Washington and perhaps confront it with a fait accompli. And evidently, the favored scenario, especially for Iran and Russia, is to prevent the status quo from unraveling even further, if not to reorient the situation back to the so-called status quo ante. In fact, from their perspective, the most plausible way to achieve this is to keep Assad in power and maintain Syria’s territorial integrity.
Parallel to the foreign ministers' meeting, was a meeting between the defense ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey. So far, Turkey has supported Islamic rebel groups in Syria, the same groups that Iran and Russia fight on the battlefield. Could this be the beginning of a joint strategy between the three countries?
Indeed, Turkey took part in the Moscow meeting on behalf of the rebel side of the conflict. It had an active role in negotiating the humanitarian operations after Aleppo fell to the regime forces. It was also involved in persuading anti-Assad insurgents to lift their siege on a number of Shia villages in the rebel-controlled Idlib province as part of the deal. There were reports that at some point during the diplomatic efforts to reach an evacuation agreement, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, called his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, thirteen times in one day!
As opposed to the more or less entrenched stances of other opposition backers, such as Saudi Arabian and Qatar, Turkey’s is showing a newfound flexibility towards the Syrian conflict. This is characterized by its tacit abandonment of calls for the removal of Assad from power and seems to be prompted by the realization that realities on the ground have been changing and that Ankara needs to adapt itself in order to better secure its national and regional interests. Of great importance to Turkey is the curtailment of Kurdish autonomy and statehood in Northern Syria. This is, in fact, the main reason behind Turkey's involvement in preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. Further, there is the apparent loss of faith in the US as a reliable ally and genuine partner. This is based on Washington’s tentative response to the July coup, its lukewarm involvement in Syria, as well as its manifest support for the Kurds fighting the Islamic State. The result is that the Erdogan government has been pushed away from the United States, closer to Russia and Iran.
If the Assad regime indeed survives in Syria, that could be seen as Iran's success and Saudi Arabia's loss. But both Russia and Turkey have friendly relations with Saudi Arabia. How could Saudi Arabia's interests somehow be accommodated in Syria and the wider Middle East?
Saudi Arabia is arguably the biggest loser in all this, both in terms of the battle for Aleppo, as well as the war in Syria. It did not have much influence on the actors in the field, nor a seat at the negotiation table afterwards. Riyadh has invested heavily in the Syrian opposition, particularly Islamist militants, such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. He has been affiliated with al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki and others, ever since the outbreak of the civil war. This increasing irrelevance, so to speak, may be ascribed to a broader pattern of recklessness and rigidity in Saudi foreign policy under King Salman, which has been fixated on its regional archrival Iran and reduced mostly to reacting to Iranian moves.
Its heavy military campaign in Yemen, support for extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, as well as on-off flirtations with ISIS are but a few examples. But there is a glimmer of hope for Saudi-Iranian cooperation. This can be seen in the recent OPEC agreement to reduce oil output by member states, as well as the resolution of the political stalemate in Lebanon. Yet there does not seem to be a natural place for Saudi Arabia in the emerging alliance structure in the Middle East, unless it rethinks certain policies and acts more smartly and flexibly in general. I think Saudis are now anxiously waiting for the Trump administration to assume power in the hope that it might play hardball with Iran, restrict its regional ambitions, and in fact change the whole game in their favor.
How do you foresee the future of Syria?
Whether we like to believe it or not, there is indeed no military solution to the Syrian crisis. This means, among other things, that there is no future for Syria with Assad. His regime has presided over the death of around half a million people, as well as the displacement, both internal and external, of over 11 million Syrians in a civil war that has so far devastated much of the country’s urban and critical infrastructure.
Even if Assad wins the war, he will lose the peace afterwards. He will have to deal with emerging pockets of rebellion and resistance. This is to say that either the Syrian civil war could persist unabated for years to come, wreaking havoc in its wake, as it has so far. Or it will break down into a series of destabilizing yet resilient insurgencies, similar to what we saw in post-invasion Iraq, where the outcome was nothing but insecurity and terrorism. The fact of the matter, however, is that under the existing circumstances, Syria without Assad, whether it be it through his personal resignation or negotiations for political transition, elections or referendum, is far from realistic and plausible. In a nutshell, I don’t see a bright future for Syria.
Maysam Behravesh has an M.A. (summa cum laude) in international relations from the University of Tehran, Iran, and is completing a Ph.D. in political science at Lund University, Sweden. His research interests center around security studies and political psychology, with an empirical focus on the Middle East. He is Research Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) Lund University, Sweden.