Western governments intend to head next week to the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) – which includes the seven Western industrial countries plus Russia – with some resolve on Syria. This comes after the battle of Qusayr exposed their failings and brought Syria into the hands of Iran.
Washington is maintaining its slow rhythm of deliberating and of unhurriedly considering its options, while the orderly march towards the battle of Aleppo may well entrench the military balance of victory and defeat in favor of the regime in Damascus and its partner in the fighting, Hezbollah, as well as their Iranian, Russian and Chinese allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to strut around like a peacock amid the leaders of Western countries, who are going to great lengths to please him and convince him to stop embarrassing them in Syria.
Indeed, he is at the height of happiness when engaged in the humiliation of Western leaders before his might, repaying them twofold in Syria for insulting him in Libya, regardless of the rising numbers of casualties, of refugees, and of displaced persons.
It is Russia’s battle against the West, and also the scene of Russia’s battle against Islamists such as Al-Nusra Front and other Jihadist groups, far away from its home soil. As for US President Barack Obama, he is from President Vladimir Putin’s perspective the gift that keeps on giving, being unwilling to get dragged into Syria, whether directly or by proxy.
Thus the Syrian arena remains hostage to Russian-Iranian control and hegemony through what is a quintessentially American decision. Meanwhile, the race between the political and military tracks is ongoing in the war in Syria, with signs of change in Western stances, in terms of arming the opposition in some way in anticipation of the battle of Aleppo, so as for this battle not to expose Washington and its allies even further.
This is with regard to the military aspect and the changing balance of power over the dead bodies of Syrians. Regarding the political aspect, Geneva 2, sought by the Russians to be a United Nations conference sponsored by Putin and Obama, it simmers on low heat amid disagreements, most prominently those over Iran’s role in Syria and the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. There are no indications that this meeting will be held before the coming battle for the balance of power through Aleppo, as the political aspect now takes the backseat to the military one in the Syrian equation. Meanwhile, talks between major powers at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland will broaden in forging bilateral and multilateral relations, and most prominently the relationship with Russia.
One diplomat closely involved with the preparations currently underway described the situation as follows: no to defeat and no to victory – saying that the part reserved for “no to defeat” for regular Syrian troops and for Bashar Al-Assad was carried out specifically in the battle of Qusayr, while the part of “no to victory” for regime forces and for Bashar Al-Assad will come through the battle of Aleppo.
Everyone is now talking about a major confrontation on the issue of Aleppo, politically and militarily. The decision to be taken on the ground will not wait for summits and for preparations for the Geneva 2 conference or others, because it is Damascus and Tehran’s decision to take, in partnership with Hezbollah. Russia is of course influential, but the main actor here is Iran, which will dictate whether or not the coming battle will require Hezbollah’s participation.
Some Russian statements suggest a language more critical of the Syrian President on the eve of the Irish summit, while others make perfectly clear how Russia is today reshaping international understandings to suit its needs and serve the regime in Damascus.
What Russia’s leadership is now saying, openly as well as in closed meetings, is that there is no logic to a “process of political transition” in the sense agreed upon at the Geneva 1 meeting, to which Joint Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League Lakhdar Brahimi had added that the transitional authority should hold full executive powers, which would mean that there would be an alternative government to the current regime, and which would hold full executive powers during the transitional period.
Russia is now opposing this, saying that the regime in Damascus must retain its security powers. This was previously said in the language of Assad continuing to exercise his powers as a “wartime president”, because his country is going through a war. The language today is less combative, but the meaning is the same – namely that Russia does not approve of the Syrian President handing over the powers of his office to a transitional body. Russia thus wants in effect to do away with the notion of a transitional authority.
Moreover, Russia now speaks of delegations, not of a single delegation, from the Syrian opposition. It seeks to fragment de facto representative of the Syrian opposition at the Geneva 2 conference, which Moscow seeks to make a UN conference.
The document presented by Russia about this conference, which is unpublished, states important points, among them the following, as listed in the document:
* That the conference should be held “in accordance with what was agreed upon in Moscow on May 7, 2013 between Russia’s Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State, and on the basis of the closing statement of the ministerial meeting on Syria of June 30, 2012”.
This means that Moscow has forcefully introduced the bilateral understanding between Kerry and Lavrov to the understandings reached in Geneva 1 in order to modify them, especially as Kerry backed down on May 7 on the stance the United States had been insistent upon, i.e. that Bashar Al-Assad must step down.
* Moscow wants United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to issue his invitations to the conference “in accordance with the Russian-American agreements reached on May 7”. This means that Moscow is working consistently to dilute what was agreed upon in Geneva a year ago, when Hillary Clinton had been Secretary of State, and that it wants to replace Clinton with Kerry officially.
* The document states that the conference must necessarily be held “under the auspices of the United Nations and under the shared sponsorship of Russia and the United States”, with the provision that “the sponsors will determine the date and the agenda, as well as who will be participating in the conference, after holding talks with the parties concerned”. In addition to this, “the sponsors will monitor the implementation of the decisions reached at the conference, its activities and any task groups that are formed”. This section translates as Moscow rejecting Geneva 1 in its entirety and seeking an alternative by having bilateral control of the conference, with Washington alone, with a symbolic contribution from the United Nations, i.e. what is left of the Geneva agreement, which is merely the fact that the conference will be held in Geneva.
* Russia proposes in its document a comprehensive UN conference under Russian-American sponsorship, with the participation of the five permanent members of the Security Council