Russia remained intensively engaged in the search for a political settlement in Syria. Its Foreign Ministry continued to denounce terrorists’ actions in Idlib to thwart Turkey’s efforts to fulfil its commitment to disengage them from “moderate” rebel forces and to establish a demilitarised zone (Review, 9/18). It was alleged that al-Nusra militants continued to fire on Syrian forces and populations on the outskirts of the province, including “chlorine-filled mortar rounds” at residential areas in Aleppo, poisoning over 100 people.
Russia continued consultations with Syria, Turkey, Iran and Syrian opposition groups to generate a panel of mutually agreed names for the Constitutional Committee to convene in Geneva by end-2018 under the UN process (Review, 10/18). A meeting of the Astana process representatives on November 28-29 apparently failed to reach consensus on the list, reflecting the conflicting interests of the parties. The US State Department reacted strongly to this outcome, declaring that “the so-called Astana/Sochi initiative on the Syrian Constitutional Committee … has produced a stalemate”, delaying convening of the Constitutional Committee in Geneva. The statement accused Russia and Iran of continuing to use the process “to mask the Assad regime’s refusal to engage in the political process” as outlined in UNSCR 2254.
Even as Russia struggled to reconcile conflicting interests in the composition of the Constitution Committee, its MFA accused the US of pursuing an agenda inconsistent with UNSCR 2254: perpetuating the control of the northeast of Syria by the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and thus de facto partitioning Syria. The establishment of US observation posts on Syria’s northern border with Turkey (announced by US Defence Secretary Mattis) was seen as confirming this trend, as also US media reports of “Arab forces” being deployed on the eastern banks of the Euphrates – the southern boundary of the US-backed, SDF-controlled territory.
Separately, Russia also inserted itself forcefully into efforts to resolve the festering crisis in Libya. Leading up to the Palermo Conference hosted by Italy, many Libyan factions quietly visited Moscow, including the military leader of eastern Libya, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who was reported to have met the Russian Defence Minister and Chief of Army Staff. Russia’s principal “private military contractor” – the Wagner group – was also reported to have participated in the talks. The fact that Russian participation in the Palermo Conference was led by PM Medvedev showed the level of Russian interest in the process. A presence in Libya (or at least preventing a hostile regime there) is important for Russia’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea. Energy interests are also involved. Russian companies were engaged in a number of commercial projects in Libya at the time of Gaddafi’s fall and have huge unpaid contractual dues. Russia is believed to be assisting Gen Haftar, but also maintains contact with other major Libyan factions and has consultations on Libya with Italy, Turkey and Qatar, which support the Tripoli-based government, as well as France, Egypt and UAE, which have closer contact with the Tobruk establishment. The Russian armed forces cannot openly operate in Libya, unlike in Syria, where they claim the invitation of the host government. It is likely, therefore, that Russian military objectives in Libya will be promoted by the Wagner group. Russia has expressed support for the efforts of UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame. There is no indication as yet of Russian intentions of an Astana-like process for Libya.
November 29, 2018