Russia’s generous offer

Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov floated a very generous offer to the Free Syrian Army:

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said his country is ready to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with air strikes and cooperate closely with the US in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and other factions.

The calls for cooperation came after at least 44 people, including six children, were killed in 24 hours due to Russian and Syrian air strikes across the country, particularly in Idlib province, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported on Saturday.

You might even say it was an offer the FSA couldn’t refuse.

"Is nice Free Syrian Army you have here. Would be shame if something happen to it."
“This is a nice Free Syrian Army you have here. It would be shame if something were to happen to it.”

But, refuse they did. Why? Because while Vladimir Putin’s foreign minister was thoughtfully offering to help the FSA fight ISIS and “other factions,” whatever that means, the FSA is mostly interested in fighting Bashar al-Assad (welcome to the reason why the US can’t raise an army to fight ISIS), and Russia obviously has no interest in helping anybody do that. Lavrov’s gambit was supposed to broaden Russia’s base of support inside Syria and make Moscow look fair-minded while actually manipulating the FSA into leaving Assad alone. I doubt he or his boss really thought the FSA would accept their deal, but now they can say “hey, we tried reaching out to those guys but they threw it back in our face” the next time they get accused of ignoring ISIS to focus on Assad’s real opposition instead (which, lo and behold, happened again today).

The Russian offer came after a Friday meeting in Vienna between them, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey produced exactly zilch by way of a path forward toward a resolution to the war, mostly because (shocker) they can’t agree on what happens to Assad. Lavrov did announce a deal with Jordan to coordinate military activities inside Syria, so that’s, uh, something, I guess? Good for those guys.

Lavrov is also insisting that Iran and Egypt (!) must be part of any future Syrian talks, which makes sense from a regional bigwig standpoint (Egypt, no matter what internal crises it may be facing, will always be an Arab power), but I’m not sure it makes sense from Russia’s geopolitical standpoint. Yes, Iran and Russia see somewhat eye-to-eye on Syria (or at least they agree with each other more than they do with any of the other players) and yes, Russian-Egyptian ties are improving, and yes, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi isn’t exactly opposed to Assad sticking around. But Sisi’s government is still pretty heavily underwritten by Saudi money, and they are opposed to Assad sticking around, so Sisi likely won’t be much help to the Russian cause at the next round of talks — whenever that may be. This isn’t the 1960s, and Egypt doesn’t call the shots anymore in the Arab world, at least not while Riyadh is signing its checks.

This little flurry of Russian-led diplomatic activity started with Assad’s visit to Moscow last Wednesday, where he thanked Putin for saving his (metaphorical, after all this is a predominantly Muslim country we’re talking about) bacon. The Obama administration griped about Putin giving the “red carpet treatment” to Assad, but look at this picture of the meeting:


I have to say, I’m no expert on diplomatic formalities, but I don’t see a red carpet here. What I see is a junior VP explaining to his CEO how he plans to fix the mess he made so that the CEO doesn’t have to keep dumping more money down the drain trying to bail the VP’s dopey ass out. Assad’s sitting there with one guy who’s apparently his personal note-taker or something, while Putin’s got three people with him including his top foreign policy adviser, and they’re all (even that really junior dude sitting behind Putin) looking at Assad like, “buddy, you really got some ‘splainin’ to do here.”

OK, that’s reading too much into one photograph. But the two impressions I took from Assad’s visit to Moscow were 1) the Russian air campaign in Syria must be working, because suddenly Assad is free to leave the country where before he practically couldn’t leave his house, and 2) Vladimir Putin is unambiguously controlling that relationship. Still not much of a red carpet there as far as I can see. Charles Recknagel at Radio Free Europe suggests that the meeting was intended to serve as the kick off of Putin’s big diplomatic push to end the war (which, if so, isn’t off to such a hot start), and that Putin may even have made it clear to Assad that he’s going to have to go at some point.

That may explain why Lavrov was also talking over the weekend about the possibility of elections in Syria sometime next summer. Of course, there’s no reason for anybody in the Syrian opposition to expect that the joint efforts of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin would produce anything resembling a free and fair election, and anyway at least half the country is likely to still be outside government control as of next summer, and would therefore presumably be unable to participate in those hypothetical elections. As Juan Cole points out, Russia’s various offers to the FSA carry a whiff, as does so much else about Russia’s escalation, of 1980s Afghanistan about them:

Lavrov seems to me offering the small “CIA-vetted” groups a new possibility. That would be to split from al-Qaeda and its coalition decisively, and find a place in a new post-conflict Syria alongside the pro-Baath groups that still support al-Assad.

It is a government of national unity strategy of a sort Mikahil Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, tried in Afghanistan as he withdrew. The Soviets urged a national unity government headed by their man, Najib Ullah, which would be nationalist and post-communist, and with which the Mujahidin groups supported by the CIA would make a political settlement.

In the end the Mujahidin rejected all this and swept into Kabul. Najib Ullah was hanged from a lamppost.

In this case Russia is presumably going to demand that any national unity government eradicate this war’s version of the Mujaheddin (ISIS, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.) rather than try to incorporate them, but the echoes are still there.

As to whether any of the anti-Assad players are moving toward some kind of compromise with Russia, there have been some rumblings that Turkey has decided it can live with a temporary Assad-led transitional government so long as he definitely goes for good when that temporary government finally gives way to a new permanent one. And, as usual, the powers keep negotiating amongst themselves without a second’s thought toward what the factions inside Syria might want. Without buy in from a considerable number of rebel groups and from Assad, no externally negotiated peace plan has any chance of succeeding. The outside powers can certainly influence things in Syria, but only to a point.

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