In the last few weeks, Russia’s silence over the Geneva II “peace” conference has been deafening: not least given Moscow’s very loud public push in November and December for the talks to take place.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did have his Foreign Ministry put out a quiet statement on Thursday, repeating Moscow’s line that a political and diplomatic solution is the only way forward for a resolution on Syria.
The Russian Foreign Ministry briefly noted a meeting between Lavrov’s deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, and the Syrian Ambassador, Riad Haddad, which “focused on multilateral efforts to prepare for the convening, scheduled for January 22, 2014, of an International Conference on Syria, Geneva II”.
Government news agency ITAR-TASS on Thursday reported a telephone conversation between Lavrov and his US counterpart, John Kerry, which presumably took place ahead of a scheduled meeting on January 13. The item noted that the two “discussed the situation regarding Syria, including preparations for the international conference Geneva II for the peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis in accordance with the Russian-American initiative”.
That, however, was it: gone are the loud public statements of the danger of “international terrorism” overtaking the Syrian conflict, and the need for “moderates” in the insurgency to work with the Assad regime to combat that advance.
Neither Lavrov or his deputy Bogdanov has made any public comment about the current military situation in Syria, including about the fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham and other insurgent groups. The closest Moscow has come to mentioning the violence was a statement linking the violence in Iraq with the Syrian conflict.
Given that Moscow has has been so vocal about Geneva II as the only route forward — at least, for its vision of a post-conflict Syria in which its ally Assad remains in power — and its use of the threat of “international terrorism” and “Al Qaeda” to persuade the US to support the “peace” talks rather than the insurgency, why is Russia styaing silent on the current fighting?
The most likely explanation is that the events of the past few days, in which several insurgent factions — led by the Islamic Front, a group that Lavrov said was “linked to Al Qaeda” — are attempting to expel or at least disable the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, has taken Moscow by surprise.
DOUBTS OVER GENEVA II
The sudden turn comes amid increasing doubts that Geneva II will even take place, and if it does, with any significant presence from the Syrian opposition.
If Geneva II is disrupted or derailed, Moscow’s strategy of promoting a “political” solution that keeps Assad in power, at least in a transitional Government, will be defunct.
SHIFTING MILITARY SITUATION
For all Moscow’s attempts to insist that a political and diplomatic solution is the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis, the fact is that the talks of Geneva II are little more than a sideshow. The Syrian crisis will be resolved on the ground militarily, as the insurgency, Assad, and Moscow are fully aware.
THE RISE OF THE ISLAMIC FRONT & CONFUSION OVER “AL QAEDA”
The recent push against ISIS has posed a serious problem for Moscow’s Syria strategy.
Russia’s attempts to tar the Islamic Front alongside ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra as “Al Qaeda” is in grave danger of backfiring, as the Front attempts to expel ISIS from areas it controls. The easy narrative, promoted and boosted by Moscow, of “Al Qaeda extremists” and “Al Qaeda franchises”, has broken down: mainstream media are struggling to redefine and explain how groups it previously described as “Al Qaeda” are now fighting another “Al Qaeda” faction.
This breakdown in propaganda has been exacerbated this week by signs that the US is reaching out to the Front, or at least is prepared to accept it as a legitimate part of the insurgency.
Any move by Washington to accept the Islamic Front will Moscow’s strategy of painting that faction — which is emerging as a powerful threat to Assad — as an illegitimate, “extremist” group with ties to international terror organizations outside Syria.
ASSAD’S FAILURE TO PUSH BACK INSURGENCY NEAR DAMASCUS
Another problem for Moscow in promoting a political solution in which Assad retains some sort of power is that attempts by Assad to make gains against the insurgency have failed.
Had the regime’s Qalamoun offensive in November, aimed at pushing back the opposition north and west of Damascus toward the Lebanese border, succeeded — in other words had Assad managed to break the insurgency, allowing him to make more gains around the capital — the regime would have been in a far stronger position at any negotiating table.
However, that offensive has not had as much success as hoped. While the regime has managed to take back a couple of key towns, Assad’s forces have failed to break the insurgents nearby, halting their threat to the Damascus-Homs highway.
Meanwhile, the insurgency has taken Adra, north of Damascus city, and have made gains against the regime in East Ghouta. Elsewhere, the opposition has claimed victories in Aleppo Province, including the capture of the Kindi barracks in Aleppo city.
The regime has also seen losses in the south, with insurgents taking the town of Jassim in Dar’aa Province.
While Assad shows military weakness by focusing on air strikes against civilians in Aleppo — a tactic that has “shock and awe” effects but which does little to make gains against the insurgency — the insurgents have regrouped via the Islamic Front, taking on the challenge of pushing out ISIS while Assad can only sit back and watch.
BEYOND GENEVA II — WHERE NEXT FOR MOSCOW’S SYRIA STRATEGY?
With Geneva II dead in the water — or at best, a meaningless sideshow — and with Assad failing to make gains on the ground, what will Moscow’s next moves be?
Moscow has not stopped providing military aid to Damascus, albeit dressed up as fulfilment of pre-existing contracts. This military aid, which arguably has kept Assad from falling, may increase if Assad feels he is not making gains on the ground. Included in the aid is crucial food and medical supplies for regime-controlled areas, assistance which helps the Assad regime continue to win over civilian hearts and minds.
Politically, Russia is likely waiting for the Syrian Coalition to announce on January 17 whether or not it will attend Geneva II. Should the Coalition — as is likely — refuse to back down from its position that Assad must agree to step down, then Moscow will be able to blame the death of Geneva II on the opposition’s refusal to participate in a political solution/ It will claim that the “external” opposition, influenced by foreign actors, does not reflect the wishes of the Syrian people. Supporting that strategy, Moscow will back a scenario in which the Assad regime retains power through an agreement to hold elections.
Moscow is likely to try to convince Washington that any support for the Islamic Front is ill-advised, and that a scenario in which Assad remains in power is the “least worst” option as far as American interests are concerned. This will not be an easy task, especially if the Islamic Front succeed in expelling or significantly disabling ISIS, which the US currently sees as a far greater threat to its interests.
Even if Russia succeeds in all of this, however, the insuperable obstacle may still remain. Unless the continuation or acceleration of military aid help Assad achieve “victory”, it will be the battlefield rather than Moscow’s manipulation of the political arena that continues to threaten Russia as well as its ally.