Will Russia back Assad’s long-term stay in power?
President Vladimir Putin has put out differing messages about Russia’s line over the Syrian conflict, following a three-hour meeting with Bashar al-Assad and an hour-long phone call with Donald Trump.
The Kremlin said Putin told Trump that the “Syrian leader confirmed adherence to the political process, to run a constitutional reform” and to Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
That summary differed from the Kremlin’s statement after Monday night’s Putin-Assad meeting. A spokesman declined to say if Assad’s own future had come up, saying only that was up to the Syrian people.
The conversations are part of Putin’s diplomacy this week pressing the Russian lead in discussions over the 80-month conflict. The President will meet Iranian and Turkish counterparts Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday in the Russian Black Sea resort Sochi.
Russia has been more cautious than Iran, Assad’s other essential backer, in its public references over a political resolution. While Tehran has made Assad’s stay in power a “red line” that cannot be crossed, Moscow has made no commitment to the ruler’s personal, long-term status.
Iran has also said that, despite Russia’s proclamation of de-escalation zones across the country — and the Islamic Republic’s formal involvement in the declaration — Tehran will support the Assad regime’s efforts to regime territory held by the opposition and by Kurdish forces. Putin gave Trump a general declaration of “the need to preserve the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria”.
A White House statement made no mention of Assad’s future, referring only to the “importance of fighting terrorism”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the President must leave, but the US has withdraw support from any rebels who continue to fight pro-Assad forces.
The Assad regime’s presentation of the Putin-Assad meeting:
Putin also spoke with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Tuesday.
The half-hour conversation with Netanyahu concerned Israel’s insistence that Iranian and Iranian-led forces leave Syria. Since Russia’s military intervention in September 2015, Putin has accepted Israeli efforts to keep Hezbollah and Iranian units out of southwest Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but Moscow has balked at any call for Iran to leave all of the country.
Main Opposition Explains Resignations Before “Unity” Talks in Saudi Arabia
A former senior official of the High Negotiating Committee has explained the resignations of some members, including HNC head Riad Hijab, ahead of purported “unity” talks in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
Suheir al-Atassi put the conference in the context of an “international tendency to force the Syrian opposition to accept Bashar al-Assad’s stay in power”:
The international community is pressuring the opposition to accept Assad’s survival under the pretext of political realism and the Russians’ control of the Syrian file. The dispute between the countries now is about the period of Assad’s survival in power and the possibility of his candidacy for the Presidency again, rather than his departure.
Atassi also explained that the HNC believes the conference is an imposition of the platform of the “Moscow group”, a smaller faction favored by Russia: “Neither the Committee nor the Kingdom is able to hold a purely Syrian conference because of the international pressure stemming from what they call the realistic survival of Assad and the Russian role.”
Russia has long sought a dilution of the role of the HNC and the umbrella opposition movement, the Syrian National Coalition, by including the “Moscow group” and “Cairo group” of politicians whom it prefers. It has been boosted since the summer by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura’s insistence on the participation of the factions in any purported opposition bloc.
Rebels Disband in East After Cutoff of US Support
Most fighters in a rebel faction in eastern Syria have departed after the cutoff of US support.
Only 40 to 60 fighters remain of the Maghawir al-Thawra faction after at least 180 others were relieved from duty over the weekend, accroding to a “source with the group”.
A US Central Command spokesperson confirmed on Monday that 180 fighters were released after they had “completed their military service.” He said they were “transitioning back to civilian life, where they can be part of the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure and economy”.
A faction spokesman said the fighters were removed because of “weak performance”. However, many of the group’s members have been departing this year after the US insisted that no operations could be carried out against pro-Assad forces, including those advancing in the Badia region after rebels had pushed the Islamic State out of the area.
The US has been limiting aid to rebel forces since 2015, and the Trump Administration ordered a cutoff this autumn except for any units fighting ISIS.
US-supported rebels and American special forces are now restricted to the Tanf base on the Iraq border, with a 55-km (34-mile) exclusion zone declared by the Americans and accepted by Russia.
Video: Latest Regime-Russia Attacks on East Ghouta Near Damascus
Al Jazeera English reports on the latest wave of Assad regime and Russian attacks on the East Ghouta area near Damascus, which have killed almost 100 people since November 14: