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Analysis: Russia’s Failure at Sochi Means More War for Syria

Having failed to achieve tangible progress at the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in Sochi, Moscow will instead be forced to rely on military means to achieve its goals in Syria, according to journalist and analyst Neil Hauer.

Written by Neil Hauer Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov gives a speech during a plenary session at the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in Sochi on January 30, 2018. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

The latest escalation in violence in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday is a significant indicator of a new Russia-led policy, following the failure to achieve the goals set for the Sochi summit, that will put more emphasis on military realities in the absence of any future peace talks.

Wide-ranging political agreements with buy-in from all of Syria’s major local actors was Moscow’s hope when it announced its plans for Syria talks in Sochi back in November.

Instead, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which finally occurred on January 30 in the Russian resort town, seems destined to join the ash heap of past Syria summits that have wholly failed to provide a resolution to the conflict.

Lofty Goals

Sochi had a number of lofty goals going in, including the creation of a “unified national army and government” and the first inclusion of Syria’s Kurds in a major international summit. It was also hoped that the opposition would accede to U.N.-supervised national elections, along with a timetable for these.

In the event, none of this occurred: The Kurdish PYD boycotted entirely, as did the opposition’s Higher Negotiating Committee. The conference closed with U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announcing the forthcoming creation of a constitutional committee, a pittance of an outcome.

Sochi thus became the latest in a series of failed summits that have occurred almost since the Syrian conflict’s outset.

The primary forum for Syria negotiations has been the Geneva process. Inaugurated in June 2012 following then-U.N. special envoy for Syria Kofi Annan’s peace plan, its goal has been to establish a transitional body to hold elections under U.N. auspices.

The forum has continued regularly since then, with the last iteration occurring in November 2017.

Unfortunately, the Geneva process is little more than a formality at this point. It is also an anachronism, having been created at a point when it appeared almost certain Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall to the armed opposition.

The Emergence of the Troika

Both the Syrian government and the opposition representatives have still never met face to face in Geneva, much less agreed on anything of substance.

The government’s fortunes have since improved dramatically, and the common wisdom today is that Geneva largely continues to exist as the political costs of outright halting the talks outweigh those of continuing them.

A ninth round will occur, but the Geneva process is moribund, obsolete and incapable of producing anything of note without substantial changes to its format or goals.

The other main diplomatic track for Syria, in Astana, Kazakhstan, offers at least some hope of progress. The first set of negotiations there, in January 2017, saw opposition and Syrian government officials sit at the same table for the first time, although little was accomplished beyond shouting.

Several more rounds in Astana saw the emergence of the troika of Russia, Turkey and Iran, who were able to agree on a landmark deal for Syria’s rebel-held areas.

The four “de-escalation zones” established in May allowed for a theoretical reduction in violence, but in practice they have meant very little. Russia and the Syrian government have continued military action as they see fit, focusing especially heavily on Idlib, where a government offensive backed by Russian air power continued through the Sochi congress.

Eastern Ghouta, the next largest opposition-controlled zone, continues to suffer a crippling siege, while both the government and Russian bombing exacerbate a major humanitarian crisis just miles from central Damascus.

Calm has largely held in the other two zones, northern Homs and southwest Syria, due to a lack of resources and low prioritization of regime forces to conduct military activity in these areas.

Another round of Astana talks is certain, but with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran engaged in a full-scale Idlib offensive it’s hard to see what these discussions will provide beyond diplomatic window dressing to mask military realities.

The main common factor between these various negotiation tracks is that what little tangible progress has been achieved has occurred between international actors. There has been little buy-in and less diplomatic progress from Syrians themselves, a situation that seems unlikely to change given the vast gap between the opposition and the government.

The Syrian government has refused to make meaningful concessions for seven years, and it’s unthinkable that they will start now.

Neither Russia nor Iran has the means to induce them to do so. The opposition has usually insisted on Assad’s departure as a precondition for face-to-face negotiations, an obvious nonstarter.

The wild card is the Kurds, whose attendance at Sochi was precisely what was to set that conference apart from other initiatives. Intense Turkish opposition and military operations in Afrin precluded that, as it has for years, leaving little hope that Syria’s Kurds will have the possibility to join international talks before more realities on the ground are hammered out.

More Peacekeepers?

Having failed to achieve tangible progress at Sochi, Moscow will instead be forced to rely on harder means of extending its influence in Syria. The primary vessel for this will likely be its North Caucasian military police. While Russia claims to have only three battalions of military police (about 1,500 personnel) in Syria at present, the true number is likely greater.

In January, Grand Mufti of Chechnya Salah-haji Mezhiev visited Syria for the third time, meeting with Chechen military police personnel in Aleppo, while other Chechen servicemen are stationed in Damascus, Palmyra and Latakia.

With the Chechens only forming one of the three announced battalions, it’s hard to think that one 500-man unit was deployed to so many locations. Russia and Turkey are also allegedly to deploy more peacekeepers deep into Idlib as operations there unfold.

A Turkish presidential spokesman said on February 4 that Russia and Turkey will establish 12 monitoring positions for the Idlib de-escalation zone, having already deployed five. With Moscow reliant on ground forces to control the situation, expect greater military police involvement.

What to expect of the next several months in Syria? It seems certain the government’s Idlib offensive will continue, grinding on until government forces encounter serious resistance, which could be tomorrow, or never.

So far the government troops have faced few problems in the province’s southeast, but this could change near population centers.

The situation in Kurdish Afrin could also develop in any number of ways, largely outside of Moscow’s control. With no new rounds of talks yet scheduled, Syria’s next few months will be focused on military realities, following the latest in six years of diplomatic failures.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by Middle East Eye and is reprinted here with permission.

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