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Putin is leading but may not have it all his way

Not for the first time, Russia has announced it is pulling back troops in Syria. President Vladimir Putin made much the same announcement in March 2016, yet it was soon reversed. One should not doubt that the Russian leader does desire a pull-out, but wants to keep the military bases and influence that his forces have gained. The timetable is no doubt dictated by Russian elections scheduled for March 2018, certainly one election that Putin has every intention of manipulating.
The question is, has Russia managed to do enough to be able to draw down forces in Syria? The fighting is not over and Russian influence in Syria is allied to its military strength on the ground. Putin wants to reduce the Russian military commitment, ideally by a political process where he will act as master of ceremonies.
So Putin’s got his diplomatic ushanka back on, playing host to Bashar Assad, and then Presidents Erdogan and Rouhani, all in Sochi. He has met Erdogan three times in November so far. Putin may also father a Sochi process, an ingathering to the Russian bosom of the disparate Syrian actors, both loyalist and opposition, but that is for the time being at least on hold. The Russian leader is demonstrating his increasing influence on the Middle East and on the world stage, largely at the expense of the US.
Putin’s moves have galvanized the backers of the Syrian opposition into action as well as other actors who fear a Russian-owned process. Saudi Arabia has cajoled the Syrian opposition into one single joint grouping unifying the Riyadh and Moscow platforms under a new leadership. The revised Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) leadership is far more credible and pragmatic.
Crucially the HNC has stated that it will go to Geneva this week for the eighth round with no preconditions, particularly over the immediate fate of Assad. One of the oppositions backers, President Erdogan, has also said that he would not rule out a meeting with Assad.
It was not just the opposition that had to get its act together. UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura raced to Riyadh to help push for a single opposition platform and boost the Geneva process he oversees. The EU also fears a Sochi process replacing Geneva. Its statement was clear: “The EU reaffirms the primacy of the UN-led Geneva process.”

Saudi Arabia has cajoled the Syrian opposition into one single joint grouping unifying the Riyadh and Moscow platforms under a new leadership.

Chris Doyle

Where does this leave the regime? Hitherto, Assad could treat Geneva as a game, counting on opposition divisions and unrealistic demands that his key backers Russia and Iran would never force him to accept. Has this changed? The regime has been stripped of its excuses not to negotiate given it confronts a united platform that has not made the president’s removal a precondition of any transition process. Ideally Assad would prefer no process at all, especially one in which ultimately he may have to make concessions. This may explain why the regime’s position on Monday was not to attend.
Assad’s personal position is far weaker than some in the West, especially the “better the devil you know” supporters, realize. When Assad was summoned to Sochi, it was as a servant coming to hear his master’s instructions. Putin ushered Assad into a meeting of Russian generals with no member of his entourage to accompany him. The message was clear. It was not a meeting of equals.
Putin has always seen Assad as disposable, barely impressed with the Syrian leader’s talents. His red line was that it should be him not the US or any other state who determined who leads his “client” state. The difference from 12 months ago is that Putin has an American president seemingly more than willing to acquiesce in this and whose administration has admitted Assad’s departure is no longer their prime objective.
But Putin does not have all it all his way either. He has not been able to sideline Iran, and the Syrian regime has successfully played the two powers off against each other. Russia cannot afford to pay for Syrian reconstruction that it knows is required for any stabilization. EU financial muscle is going to be needed. China may be a player in a reconstruction process, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also clear he expected the Syrian regime to make concessions: “China hopes the Syrian side can seize the opportunity, display flexibility, and promote dialogue and negotiation to achieve substantive results.”
Putin may for the time being go along with a revived Geneva process, with a Sochi process to fall back on if this does not work. It has been delayed it seems to February. The attention is focussed on future elections and drafting a new constitution, with the likelihood that Assad will remain in power at least until these can take place. Preparations for even half-credible internationally monitored elections would require 18 to 24 months' lead  time.
Putin has certainly energized diplomatic action on Syria. Skeptics will make powerful arguments about the big unresolved issues, not least the continued fighting on the ground, the future of Idlib and tensions over Kurdish aspirations that Turkey is determined to thwart. But for all that, a new opening exists to end this interminable conflict, one that might be successful if all involved start working for the future of Syria and Syrians and not their narrow interests.

Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech