Russia continued its effort to take forward its two main objectives in Syria: piloting the search for a political settlement through the UN-mandated Geneva process and securing international support for rehabilitation assistance to Syria, even while the political process continues. Moscow hosted the head of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) of Syrian opposition groups to discuss approaches in the Constitutional Consultative Committee to be convened by the UN Special Envoy. The Turkey-Germany-France-Russia summit in Istanbul also discussed this. Although the summit did not produce any spectacular results, it did signal acceptance by France and Germany of Russia’s pole position in the Syrian discourse. The joint statement recognized the urgency for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and called on the international community to extend such assistance. The US has so far asserted that no humanitarian assistance would be extended to areas under control of the Assad government. It is not yet clear whether the joint statement reflects a change in US views or a defiance of it by France and Germany. Finally, the summit may have succeeded in reviving the proposal, first mooted by President Macron and blocked by the US, for coordination of policies and actions of the “small group” on Syria (US, UK, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) and the Astana process (Russia, Turkey and Iran).
Russia is also likely to leverage its intensifying political and economic links with Saudi Arabia to positively influence the course of the Syrian process. It refrained from taking any position in the controversy swirling around the killing of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul; the Russian MFA restricted itself to the view that a thorough investigation is required. At the height of the controversy, King Salman telephoned President Putin: the Kremlin reported that they discussed multifaceted bilateral cooperation, including in energy, Syria and “the situation around the Khashoggi case”. It was announced that Saudi Arabia would invest $5 billion in the LNG2 project in the Arctic of Russia’s independent gas firm Novatek. A Saudi wealth fund was also reported to be investing $500 million in a Russo-Chinese investment fund, which is also open for other investors. Russia’s coordination with Saudi-led OPEC for stabilizing oil prices by regulating output has proved successful beyond its original expectations. In a meeting with the Secretary General of OPEC, President Putin discussed the possibility of institutionalizing this cooperation. It may be noted that Saudi Arabia had facilitated the ouster of a stridently anti-Assad leader of the Syrian HNC and the election of a more moderate one (Review, 11/17).
During a Moscow visit, Egyptian President El-Sisi signed with President Putin an Agreement on Strategic cooperation, announced the construction of a Russian nuclear power plant (with Russian credit of $25 billion), Russian investment of $7 billion in an industrial and logistics park and expanded military-technical cooperation. President Putin sought Egypt’s support for taking the Syrian process forward; President El-Sisi sought Russian support for his vision for a Libyan political solution. Both agreed to coordinate their actions on these two issues. It may be noted that Egypt is a member of the “small group”, was instrumental in bringing a group of Egypt-based Syrian opposition groups to the HNC, and has influence over a faction of militants fighting in Idlib.
Even as it continued its diplomatic overtures to achieve its objectives in Syria, Russia continued to criticize American efforts to block progress, through support for separatist Kurds in north-eastern Syria and occupation of the al-Tanf region in the south. The Russians persisted in their allegations that the US was arming and encouraging ISIS terrorists to attack Russian and Syrian military targets.
All sides have generally agreed that the Consultative Committee should conclude its work of framing a new Syrian constitution and setting a roadmap for fresh elections by the end of this year. Russian activity is directed at trying to ensure that the membership of the Committee is “balanced” from its perspective. A new concern has been introduced by the abrupt resignation of the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, with whom the Russians were comfortable. MFA displayed anxiety about his replacement, expressing the hope that he would be acceptable to the Syrian government and would be neutral and impartial.
US actions will eventually influence the way in which all these Syrian strands intertwine. The Trump-Putin meeting, in which Syria will definitely figure (as confirmed by NSA Bolton), may provide some clues.
October 30, 2018