By Jan van der Made
Crucial talks on Syria recently took place in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Russia President Vladimir Putin talked to Turkish president Erdogan and their Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. The meeting comes after a visit by Syrian president Bashar al Assad to Russia, where he met with Putin. It’s just the beginning of another week full of initiatives they are aimed at solving the crisis in Syria.
End of Islamic State?
Ghasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and arguably the most powerful man in Iran has announced the official end of the Islamic State.
The war has left 300.000 dead, millions of homeless and Iran’s Mehr News Agency cites “Preliminary studies” estimating the total cost of destruction at over €500 million.
Saying it is over may be premature as fighting is still ongoing, but the statement indicates that Iran thinks that Syria is about to go into a new phase.
And they are not alone.
In a meeting with Syrian president Bashar al Assad, Russian president Vladimir Putin indicated that it is he who takes the lead in the peace process.
The “Sochi talks,” a continuation of the Astana rounds, will start on December 2.
They are preceded this week by a high level meeting between the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey, also in Sochi, to sort out differences and give the green light.
“It could well be a game changer,” says former civil society activist Rim Turkmani, now a Senior Research Fellow with the London School of Economics.
“I expect that the final statement will endorse the upcoming meeting [on December 2]. Which means a lot if Turkey backs the process as Turkey is also a supporter of the opposition.”
But to fulfil everybody’s wishes may be tricky.
“Each country has its own interest and agenda,” says Eytan Gilboa, an Iran specialist with the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.
“Turkey is obviously interested in the area around the city of Idlib, and [they want to] prevent any independence or even autonomy for the Kurds in Syria.
“Iran wants to establish a permanent military presence; it wants to control Syria. And Russia wants to make sure that its interests are going to be respected,” he says.
Just last week, in a reaction to a joint statement by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan demanded that both the US and Russia pull their military out of the country.
Although Trump maintained earlier this year that the US wouldn’t have “boots on the ground” in Syria, Turkey’s Andalou Agency leaked positions of 10 US military bases in Northern Syria, manned by hundreds of US and 75 French soldiers.
For its part, Russia doesn’t have official figures of their “boots on the ground” either, one can get an idea by checking the official Russian State procurement website.
On 28 March 2016 it said the Russian Ministry of Defence ordered 10.300 medals for “Participants in the Military Operation in Syria,” which gives an indication of the amount of Russian military personnel involved.
Russian military were stationed in the Khmeimim Airbase that was leased to Russia for 49 years in January 2017, and the small Russian naval facility in Tartus, that can host four medium sized vessels.
But the priority now is to get the warring factions around the table.
During the December 2 talks in Sochi, representatives of the Syrian government will take part as will the the official opposition. The exiled opposition may be also invited.
There is a new element: Putin is inviting some 1400 tribal leaders from inside Syria as well.
“He would like to integrate them,” says Gilboa, “to let them participate on national reconciliation and the writing of the new Syrian constitution.
“All of these tribal heads are armed, they live in different parts Syria, and they control armed militias.
“Some of them fought against Assad, some of them against the Islamic State, some of them against both. Russia would like to bring them into power sharing and acceptance of Assads’ regime,” he says, pointing out that the big question now is how many will accept the invitation?
Meanwhile, the largest opposition group in exile, the High Negotiations Committee [HNC], backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, has its own meeting this week in Riyad, coinciding with the Sochi meeting of Putin, Rouhani and Erdogan.
The HNC is boycotting the Astana Process, the Russian-sponsored series of talks that started in January 2017 in the capital of Kazakhstan and which has had seven rounds until now, resulting in the designation of so-called “de-escalation zones,” that are periodically attacked in spite of their ‘safe haven’ status.
It is unlikely that the HNC will send representatives to Sochi either.
But HNC representatives will go the next round of Geneva talks that start on November 28, last three days, and end just one day before Putin’s Sochi talks will open.
Many observers, however, think that the Russia has taken the upper hand with its Astana/Sochi initiative, and that those who don’t take part in it, will eventually lose out when post-war Syria is being designed.