Syria talks: Russia checkmates West

Having joined the battle with insurgents, Russia is in a position to

Past grand masters at the game of chess, the Russians have checkmated the Western and Arab powers inter-vening in Syria with the aim of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad. The Russians have reached this decisive stage in the proxy war through military prowess and diplomatic guile.

The agreement reached on February 12 at Munich by 17 countries belonging to the Syria support group – including Russia, US, Iran, European and Arab countries – offers immediate humanitarian aid deliveries by road or air to areas in urgent need and a nationwide cessation of hostilities by the 19th.

Excluded from the ceasefire are Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, dubbed “terrorist” groups by the UN, allowing Russia to continue its air operations against Nusra which partners with mainly militant fundamentalist anti-government factions patronised by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and deemed “moderates” by the US and its Western allies.

Since Nusra has deployed fighters with immoderate “moderates” around Aleppo, in the northwest, the centre and south of Syria, these groups remain legitimate targets for Russian airstrikes as well as government offensives given air cover by Russian warplanes.

The US-led coalition, which has been conducting a limited number of bombing runs against the IS in Syria and Iraq, will also carry on and, perhaps, coordinate with Russia on targeting, a demand long put forward by Moscow. The success of Russia's aerial campaign has been measured in towns, villages and countryside retaken by the Syrian army and affiliated militias.

Last year, the overstretched and under-manned army lost the north-western province of Idlib and other strategic areas after Saudi Arabia supplied fresh arms to insurgents allied with Nusra. The IS fighters also swept south from bases in Deir al-Zor to conquer the ancient and modern cities of Palmyra.

Instead of Idlib and Palmyra, the Syrian army has given priority to Aleppo, once Syria’s mo-st populace city and commercial hub. If insurgents – who occupy the eastern districts of the city inhabited by 350,000 people – are contained or forced to capitulate, Damascus – which controls the western districts with a million inhabitants – would win the battle for Syria both on the ground and psychologically. As Napoleon had declared, “In war, the spiritual (psychological) is to the material as three to one.”

Well aware of Moscow’s strengthened military and political position, Washington has finally, in the view of US analyst Gareth Porter, “retreated from its former position that Assad must go.” This stand was adopted on August 18, 2011, by President Barack Obama who argued that his Syrian counterpart had lost legitimacy due to his brutal crackdown on protests and must step down.

The expectation was that he would be ousted by Syria’s  generals as happened in the case of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak following mass demonstrations against his 30-year rule. This did not happen and is unlikely to happen as long as Russia and Assad’s other main ally Iran, are prepared to fight to keep him in office.

A Syrian independent opposition activist told Deccan Herald that Obama’s mistimed diktat came at a time Assad’s regime had been prepared to initiate serious political reforms. The lost opportunity has cost 250,000 Syrian lives, displaced half the population and destroyed cities, towns and villages as well as the country's ancient and Islamic cultural heritage.

Assad’s fate
To make matters worse, former US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said on January 13, “We have allowed ourselves to get caught and paralysed on the our Syrian policy by (Obama’s) statement, ‘Assad must go.’” The paralysis seems to have passed: the US seems to be prepared to allow Assad to stay at least until the war comes to an end which is the Russian position.

Post-war, Moscow is prepared to discuss Assad’s fate. Having joined the battle with insurgents threatening Damascus, Russia is in position to “deliver” Assad in negotiations and perhaps even ensure that he does stand down.

Once aid begins to flow and local ceasefires with non-Nusra-non-IS fighters start to take hold, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura may try to revive talks between the government and opposition on the formation of a unity government tasked with drafting a new constitution and holding elections. The Geneva talks in January never formally opened because the Saudi-sponsored High Negotiations Committee (HNC) preconditioned participation on aid access and cessation of hostilities. 

At the end of the Munich gathering, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the HNC to return to Geneva. “What we got...on this cessation of hostilities represents what the opposition wanted.” Unfortunately, the US cannot “deliver” the HNC because its patrons Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not pawns that can be moved about a chessboard.

Under Saudi King Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, these countries have become loose cannons careening around West Asia: Riyadh and Ankara waging proxy war against Russian and Iran in Syria; Riyadh bombing tribesmen in Yemen and Ankara savaging Turkey’s restive Kurds.

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