Russia, on the surface, appears strong and triumphant in diplomatic meetings and its military adventures in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems confident about his ability to impose one fait accompli after the other on all sides. Putin is leading the war on ISIS and what he deems to be the Sunni terrorist threat to Russia, seeing as the Muslim minority in Russia is Sunni and the five Muslim republics surrounding Russia are also Sunni.
The Vienna talks on the Syrian crisis convened at Russia’s invitation, and secured some breakthroughs after inviting Iran to the international negotiations on the future of Syria with Saudi approval and participation for the first time. While Libya signified NATO and the GCC’s humiliation of Russia with blessing from the Arab League, Syria will be the place for Russia’s revenge and return to the Middle East, as well as the place where Russia will move to secure its position in reconfigured the regional and international order.
But Vladimir Putin’s bid entails a lot of adventurism. The Russian leader may feel overconfident as he obtains important concessions from the Gulf nations and Turkey, having had already guaranteed implicit US consent to his Syrian policy. Putin might be reassured by what he has offered to Saudi Arabia, by refraining from obstructing and criticizing the Arab coalition fighting the war in Yemen. However, Putin will not be able to fight the war on ISIS and so-called Sunni terrorism by allying with the Iran-backed Shiite militias, including terrorist ones.
Indeed, by doing so, he is provoking the Sunni partners he needs to crush ISIS and other Sunni terrorist groups.
Secondly, Putin is making a great gamble by making Russia spearhead the fight on ISIS and similar groups, which are likely to retaliate against Russian interests. The Russian plane that crashed over the Sinai after taking off from Sharm al-Sheikh could have been swift revenge from ISIS for what is taking place in Syria – if it is true that the radical group managed to plant explosives on the plane.
The achievements of the expanded Vienna meeting, which was attended by both Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are significant. However, the Vienna process remains fragile because it has diluted the principles endorsed by the Geneva communique, including the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers.
Initially, Saudi-Iranian relations did not record a breakthrough in Vienna, save for the fact that the two foreign ministers sat at the same table for nearly nine hours and neither withdrew despite their sharp differences. This is in and of itself important given the accusations the two ministers exchanged and the extent of distrust between their two countries.
According to sources, the climate was very tense at the meeting. The gaps remain wide and the disputes do not only focus on Syria, but also involve conflicts in other Arab countries. The two sides have accused each other of sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East and beyond, and Zarif has even alluded to Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on US soil.
Moscow has achieved for the United States and the UN what they could never achieve despite numerous attempts, by convincing Tehran to sit at the negotiating table for the future of Syria. Riyadh agreed after initial reluctance, because Moscow has made a tradeoff between Syria and Yemen.
Russian sources said that in return for Saudi concessions on Syria, including agreeing to Iranian participation in the talks, Moscow has offered what may be described as the Chinese approach to tough conflicts: Non-interference, non-objection, non-obstruction and non-facilitation with regard to the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s actions in Yemen. According to sources in the Security Council, this development has been obvious in the Russian positions during the council’s meetings, where Moscow has replaced obstruction with non-interference.
Moscow did not promise to deliver Iranian cooperation in Yemen, because it is unable to rein in Iran in Yemen. However, Moscow is able to clarify that it does not support the Iranian role in Yemen, and can do a lot to facilitate the mission of the UN Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and it seems to have done exactly this. During the Manama summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that while the Iranian role in Yemen did no change, the Russian role was positive as is the US role.
Clearly, Saudi Arabia is prepared to implement the Yemen exit strategy through the UN-sponsored diplomatic process, welcomed by Moscow and Washington. Even Tehran is probably willing to trade the Yemeni card for the Syrian card, though this is still being sorted.
One reason is that Tehran is ultimately subject to the conditions of its agreement with the international community on the nuclear issue and the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Iran. Tehran is in a critical period, because rehabilitating it and lifting the sanctions is now contingent upon it proving its good faith in the region, and not just by fulfilling its nuclear obligations. So, while being present at the Syria negotiations has secured gains for Iran, it has also placed it under a microscope.
Iran achieved other things at Vienna. The Vienna statement issued after last week’s meeting made it clear that what Tehran practically won was the dilution of the Geneva communique. The Vienna statement did not mention any mechanism for transition of power from Bashar al-Assad to a transitional governing body with full executive powers.
The Vienna statement also assigned the top priority for fighting terrorism at the expense of the transitional process, which is the foundation of the Geneva communique. This was another achievement for Iranian and Russian positions.
The difference between the Russian position and the Iranian position concerns the extent of commitment to Assad in power. Moscow is willing to relinquish Assad eventually, but Tehran is clinging to Assad because he is the center of gravity of its influence in Syria. Moscow is willing to abandon Assad as part of an equation to reconfigure the regime in Damascus, while Tehran considers him the linchpin of its interests in Syria.
The difference, practically speaking, is minute. Both powers believe the transfer of power from the regime and the president requires holding elections that are impossible in the current circumstances in Syria, unless they mean a referendum on keeping the regime and the president in power.
The main differences between the poles of the Vienna process involve the fate of Assad. Saudi Arabia insists on Assad eventually leaving, willingly or by force. Russia does not adhere to guarantees or a timetable, and is lobbying for elections, which are rejected by the other side because of their impossibility. However, Russia has hinted that it is not married to Assad but to the regime, so to speak, and therefore is working on shoring up the regime as an indispensable party to the war on terror.
The second difference, as Jubeir explained in Manama, is over the timing of the withdrawal of foreign forces, especially Iranians, from Syria. Russia declares that it does not have reservations in principle, but the issue will depend on the course of military operations and achievements against ISIS and other groups Russia designates as terrorist groups. For its part, Iran does not publicly acknowledge that it has military presence in Syria, as it is fully aware this would be in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Iran understands the US can play that important card as those resolutions were adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The third difference is over the definition of terrorist groups and opposition groups in Syria. Russia has lists containing both. The United States has avoided this game. The Syrian opposition is victim of both and victim of itself at once. The Gulf nations speak of terrorist groups run by Tehran, meanwhile, and call for them to be included on the lists of terrorist groups operating in Syria.
Now, one item that has imposed itself on the agenda of the next round of the Vienna talks, and on Russian strategy in Syria, will be the alleged bombing of the Russian passenger jet over Sinai. This will impose on Russia a thorough rethink of the consequences of spearheading the war on “Sunni terrorism” worldwide, and not just in the Middle East, including the Russian homeland and its Muslim-majority neighbors among the former Soviet republics.
There are indications breakthroughs are possible if Moscow plays its cards well in Syria. It is correct to say that Moscow has stirred the stagnant waters by intervening in Syria, imposed fighting terrorism as a priority, and mobilized support for its initiatives on Syria. Russia also obtained serious concessions, and has been shrewd in making the tradeoff between Syria and Yemen.
However, Moscow must think beyond its tactical achievements. It has installed itself as the instrument and leader of the war on Sunni terrorism by allying with anyone offering their help. Russia needs a strategy to avoid becoming implicated in quagmires.