The Russian efforts to bring about the resolution of the Syrian war have seen a surprising diplomatic push over the recent few weeks. The flurry of meetings and phone calls between Russian officials and key stakeholders in the Syria crisis have been an indication that Moscow is preparing for another power move in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad, who has only left Syria once since the start of the war, to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow after Russia had thrown its military weight behind Damascus in the Fall of 2015, made another surprising appearance in Russia last week. This largely symbolic development signaled to his counterparts that Moscow may be changing its modus operandi in Syria.
The change in strategy was not unexpected by observers, since in the run-up to the Russian presidential elections over the next three months, domestic politics will heavily factor into Russian foreign policy. Syria, in this context, is set to create the right footing for Putin and land him another term in office. That is not to say that without a decisive victory in Syria Putin would not get reelected, but the sense of an unfinished military campaign could easily become a political burden that could haunt him over the next presidential term in a Russian political landscape where foreign policy triumphs resonate with people more than anything else. The timeline to bring about a military and political victory in Syria is quite short for Putin: the conditions should be in place for him to convince the public that the end of the Syrian conflict is near by the time he announces his candidacy on December 14.
Feeling the pressure of time, Putin has significantly altered the tone of his Syria narrative. The discussion of political dialogue and the need to rebuild the country now overshadows military-focused concerns in Moscow. The Russian president is trying to sell the idea of the “normalization” of situation in Syria to his allies and to his opponents, though neither has fully embraced it. This is the message that Putin voiced during Assad’s recent visit to Russia and his key talking point at the summit of the heads of state of Russia, Iran and Turkey that took place in Sochi on November 22.
Talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Hassan Rouhani, Putin focused on the importance of the Astana format and ways to accelerate post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Syria, and invited Turkey and Iran to chip in to rebuild Syria. Putin spoke at length about the Astana process and how the seven rounds of talks in this format have created the conditions that may finally allow Syria to enter the post-conflict stage of development. Despite Putin’s traditional remark that the Geneva platform for talks is the key political process, he is making it crystal clear that Russia-led Astana comes first; it is in fact an attempt to monopolize the political settlement of the conflict.
Most importantly, however, Russia seemed to have succeeded in marketing the idea of a Syrian congress to its counterparts, securing the support of Ankara and Tehran. Moscow expects that the Syrian congress will become a watershed between the military stage in the conflict and the post-war period. Both Erdogan and Rouhani seemed to be willing to play along with Russia’s implicit proclamation of victory in Syria. However, while Russia makes its bet on the Syrian Congress marking the transition to peace, others may find it to be a stumbling block. The Syrian opposition has not developed a common position on the congress, with both Mohammed Alloush, who heads the delegation to Astana talks, and the HNC having dismissed a Russia-sponsored gathering, claiming it has been designed to circumvent international efforts. This assessment goes in line with the logic of the Astana talks and could leave the Geneva platform with the role of a rubber-stamping body in the Syrian settlement process.
The opposition’s rejection of Russian-imposed solution is the reason why the Syrian Congress has been rescheduled several times (the last confirmed date in early December has been again pushed back to Jan. 2018) as well as significantly changed its format. Initially planned as a gathering for leaders of all Syrian political and ethnic factions, it later morphed into an “all-Syria” congress which is expected to convene thousands of Syrians from all walks of life, smoothing out the sense of a binding format that might scare most political figures off.
But it is not just the opposition that is protesting the congress; it seems that Russia’s partners, Turkey and Iran, are also questioning its feasibility. Putin’s triumphant statement about Erdogan’s and Rouhani’s backing for the congress was marred by the Turkish president rejecting the participation of the Kurds – without whom the congress would not make much sense. This is one of the multiple reasons why the event will not take place any time soon. In the absence of wide international support for the congress, having Iran as one of the powers backing it has made the participation of the Syrian opposition even less likely. Moscow has essentially proposed to Assad’s opponents that they accept a post-war status quo in which Iran and by extension Hezbollah would be sponsors of the political process and beneficiaries of its outcomes.