Russia, Iran set stage for Geneva II; Turkey’s slow turnaround on Syria

This week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul called for a “recalibration” of Turkey’s Syria policies in view of the “realties that have emerged on our country’s southern flank,” as reported by Semih Idiz. Russian and Iranian diplomacy have helped shape the Geneva II agenda to include a cease-fire, humanitarian relief and counterterrorism in Syria.

Gul’s charge was read as a challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is immersed in a corruption scandal, while dealing with Ankara’s failed regional policies. Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, stuck to the line that no blame for Turkey’s woes falls on them, and that the corruption inquiry is a coup supported by international powers and interests, as Tulin Daloglu reported.

Nonetheless, Ali Hashem reports from Tehran that Turkey is giving some priority to strengthening ties with Iran, including Ankara slowly coming around to Tehran’s approach to a political solution in Syria.

There was more than a bit of symbolism when Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in Moscow together on Jan. 16, the day before Muallem announced his government’s proposal for a cease-fire in Aleppo.

While US Secretary of State John Kerry last week held firm that Iran would not be invited to Geneva II, and coerced and pleaded with the Syrian opposition coalition to send a delegation to the conference — which it finally agreed to do on Jan. 18 — Zarif spent his time on a regional diplomatic tour that took him to Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Syria, where he promoted a regional consensus for Syrian-led negotiations toward a political solution at Geneva II and for dealing with the threat of terrorist groups as a result of the Syria war.

An informed Iranian source told Ali Hashem in Tehran that even though Iran would not likely be invited to Geneva II, “these countries need our efforts, and we are genuinely keen to do our part to make sure this conference reaches a happy ending. Part of these efforts is this regional tour.”

Zarif’s day in Lebanon included meetings with President Michel Suleiman and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, and perhaps a signal or two that it would be willing to consider a quiet accommodation with Saudi Arabia to allow a new Lebanese government to be formed, as Sami Nader wrote.

Zarif’s final stop in Moscow reflected a new chapter in Russia-Iran relations, as Vitaly Naumkin and Fyodor Lukyanov write for Al-Monitor, and a level of coordination on Syria that could eventually prove decisive, if there is ever to be a political solution to the crisis. 

So when Muallem, who will lead the Syrian government delegation at Geneva II, presented his plan to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Jan. 17 for a cease-fire in Aleppo and steps to provide humanitarian relief to besieged areas of Syria — in addition to accepting the principle of prisoner exchanges, as Kerry had called for four days earlier — it is fair to say it probably would not have happened without the good offices of Tehran and Moscow. The spotlight will now shift to the Syrian opposition to carry through on its end of any cease-fire agreement, assuming the Syrian government abides by its own proposal. 

This column on Dec. 15, said the “first order of business at Geneva II” should be a cease-fire, as there is no prospect for a political solution without one, and has for more than a year identified Russia and Iran as essential to the endgame in Syria.

While Kerry rejected any diversion of the purpose of Geneva II from a political transition to counterterrorism, the trend coming out of the conference may be different than it is going in, as reported here last week. The signs are already there. Nobody, at this stage, really believes that Geneva II will be about Assad negotiating himself out of office. In the meantime, international and regional parties have other pressing matters in dealing with Syria. If the Syrian tragedy is not urgent enough for you, just take a look at Iraq.

So if there is an interest in a cease-fire in Syria, in providing humanitarian relief to distressed and displaced Syrians, in prisoner exchanges, in beating back the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other terrorist organizations, and in keeping up the progress toward the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, then there will need to be engagement with the government and opposition, both, on all these matters, as well as on a political transition, but that will take longer. Over time, the Syrians themselves, with international assistance, can and will work out the issues of transitional justice and reconciliation, but this cannot take place in the context of the war, it must happen after.

As a further sign of the trend toward counterterrorism in a new Geneva consensus, as this column wrote last week, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the BBC that Western intelligence officials have visited Damascus to discuss jihadists from western Europe making their way to Syria.

US officials realize these linkages between Geneva II and the rising terrorist threat in the region, even if Kerry needs to hold firm to the stated purpose of Geneva II heading into the conference. Kerry’s diplomatic blitz to rally the opposition to agree on a cease-fire and attend Geneva II last week included “lengthy conversations” with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, as US Deputy Secreatry of State William Burns told Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen in an exclusive interview. Kerry  “emphasized again our concerns about the rise of violent extremist groups, the danger of spillover, the importance of success in Geneva II,” Burns told Rozen. “I think the Saudis increasingly share a number of those concerns, especially about the sorts of Sunni extremist groups that have in recent weeks, up until the last week or so, been expanding the territory on which they are operating in Syria.”

One of the unfortunate stories of the past year is the declining influence in opposition politics of secular left-wing and nationalist opposition figures based inside Syria, such as those individuals and groups affiliated with the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change, as Antoun Issa reported. As reports trickle out of US diplomats reaching out to the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist groups, many of whom espouse Islamic law for Syria and have among their ranks foreign fighters, the “internals,” who do not have the benefit of largesse from patrons in the Gulf, have been relegated to the sidelines. 

As Edward Dark reported from Aleppo this week, even if the Islamic Front can play a role in beating back ISIS, “the Islamic Front is certainly no answer to the Syrian conflict. What is needed, as has been repeated, is a political process that ostracizes the extremists, not incorporates them into the political fabric.”

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