October 28, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Parallel Paths of Peace and War in Syria
• While all sides prep for more intensive fighting in Syria, there is a serious diplomatic push to use the buildup as a last-minute power play, rather than a new chapter of protracted ground war
• Once again, Oman is playing a pivotal role as a trusted facilitator of talks between warring sides and proxies
• The Omani Foreign Minister’s trip to Damascus is only the latest in a flood of face-to-face meetings from Moscow to Riyadh since the Russian military escalation in Syria three weeks ago
• Each side—and their respective backers—will seek to seize as much ground as possible before any potential negotiations take shape; Syrian civilians are sure to suffer more amidst the geopolitical and territorial maneuverings.
There is a reason that now, after years of international fugue-state, events in Syria appear to be accelerating on all fronts. The military buildup since the recent Russian airstrikes has garnered the most attention. There are reports that the U.S. is considering putting Special Forces troops on the ground in Syria—a huge shift in policy—while Russia continues airstrikes to assist Assad regime forces that are being bloodied by Saudi and Western-provided TOW missiles.
These dramatic military moves are best viewed in the context of parallel and equally significant diplomatic moves. Considering the combined geopolitical weight of the external powers seeking influence in Syria—from Russia to the United States, Iran to Saudi Arabia and Turkey—it is remarkable, yet appropriate, that once again the tiny country of Oman should potentially play a key positive role.
On October 26, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to discuss the renewed diplomatic maneuverings. This trip was preceded by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s visit to Muscat in August, before Russia began launching airstrikes. Since that visit in August, a great deal of moves have been made, perhaps setting the table for a real chance at inclusive negotiations. Such diplomatic forays include: Assad traveling to Moscow to meet with President Putin last week; U.S. Secretary of State Kerry traveling to Riyadh to meet with King Salman on October 25; Putin speaking several times with King Salman, as well as President Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, seeking broader support for Russia’s view of the Syrian endgame; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Secretary Kerry and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Vienna last week; another round of meetings is scheduled later this week, and may include more countries, most notably Iran.
One of the remarkable shifts has been the sticking point of Assad’s status before any talks can begin. The rebels and their GCC and Western backers have long insisted that Assad step down as a prerequisite for talks. The Russian escalation and the Omani intermediation have now shifted the issue of Assad’s departure to how long he might stay as part of a negotiated settlement. The tricky part will be in getting the opposing sides to agree on either a time-based deadline for Assad’s stepping down or a metric-based deadline. The difference between the two viewpoints is substantial.
The Syrian rebels, the United States, the EU, Turkey, and the GCC will push for a firm timetable for Assad’s departure. The suggested timelines run from 6 months to ‘indefinite.’ The U.S. has recently reconsidered its own time-based withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the realities of the rebel and GCC demands make this time-demand somewhat fixed.
The Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers prefer a metrics-based deadline; Assad has said he would consider stepping down once extremism in his country is defeated—tantamount to a lifelong term, given the impossibility of the task. Russia has floated the idea of near-term presidential elections to counter the idea of a time-based transition. Moscow anticipates that if the opposition insists on a timeline, then an inevitable win by Assad means another full-term, based on the ‘decision' of the Syrian people.
The timing of this diplomatic flurry is somewhat unfortunate for Turkey, which has been among the most active and insistent opponent to Assad remaining in power. Ankara is still a major player in supporting its preferred rebel factions, but recent internal terrorist attacks, renewed fighting with the Kurds, and an upcoming election have turned the country’s attention inward. Tehran, perhaps feeling upstaged as Assad’s main supporter by Putin’s recent moves, has committed a significant military presence and effort in the renewed fighting around Aleppo and other besieged parts of northwestern Syria. With a meaningful physical presence on the ground, Iran will hope to both prop up Assad and assure that Tehran has a seat at any negotiation table. Though Riyadh has firmly opposed including Iran in any talks, the more boots Iran has on the ground as part of the Syria/Iran/Russia alliance, the harder it will be to exclude it.
The talks might fizzle out—as have so many other pseudo-breakthroughs—leaving the war to drag on and likely worsen, as regional meddling ensures a continuous flow of weapons and civilian suffering. Yet there is a sense that this time could be different, given that the Russian intervention has jolted all parties to attention and action.
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