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Russia holds the key pieces, but can it solve Syria’s jigsaw puzzle?

The bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are key features of the six-year-old Syrian conflict are finally falling into place. Last week there was an exceptional push toward putting the political process back on track with various interlocutors repositioning themselves in preparation for what looks like a crucial round of talks expected to convene in Geneva.
A three-day meeting by Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh ended in a major breakthrough: An agreement to form a joint delegation, encompassing political and military bodies, which will present a united front in Geneva and possibly later in Sochi. The latter venue will seek to initiate an intra-Syrian dialogue involving the government and the opposition; this was agreed on by the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran who met in the Russian resort on Nov. 25. That summit was reminiscent of the Yalta conference in 1945, when the victorious powers of the day met to decide the fate of a defeated Germany and post-war Europe.
This time, with Daesh on the verge of defeat and the Syrian regime in control of most of the country, the three main players in Syria appeared united in their positions over the future of the country. But just like the eventual outcome of Yalta, it would be foolish to discount the conflicting agendas that these players have, not only in Syria but in the region as a whole. The elephants in the room, which include the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the US military foothold in eastern Syria, the presence of pro-Iranian militias and Syrian Kurdish political ambitions, were generally avoided.
The fact that Russia announced that Assad had met with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, a day before the trilateral summit, was especially important. Not only had Putin declared that the Russian military operation in Syria was coming to an end, but he also told Assad that he should be ready to engage in a meaningful political process, adding that all sides must be prepared to offer compromises.
Adding to the present momentum was the statement made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week in which he praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts in uniting the Syrian opposition. He declared that Moscow and Riyadh had worked toward achieving that goal. The joint delegation will be comprised of the so-called Egypt and Moscow platforms. The latter had maintained that the future and role of President Assad in the proposed transitional phase should not be a deal-breaker. While the newly elected head of the joint negotiating delegation, Nasr Al-Hariri, announced that President Assad should not be part of the transitional ruling authority, he also said that the delegation will head to Geneva to negotiate without prior conditions.

The elephants in the room — including the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the US military foothold in eastern Syria, the presence of pro-Iranian militias and Syrian Kurdish political ambitions — are generally being avoided in current talks.

Osama Al Sharif 

It remains to be seen what will unfold in the coming few days in Geneva. Talks will center on the launch of the political process, the forming of a transitional government and the country’s new constitution. But with Russia insisting on holding the Sochi meeting later this year or earlier next year, there are fears that Moscow may be working to force an alternative to Geneva. It managed to institutionalize the Astana process, which culminated in the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria. Now, according to Lavrov, it wants Syrian interlocutors to agree on elections and a new constitution in Sochi. That may encourage the regime to dismiss Geneva altogether.
President Putin is playing his cards carefully. As the key stakeholder in Syria, he has put himself in the driver’s seat when it comes to preparing the ground for a political settlement. He has built a strategic alliance while keeping other regional capitals, primarily Riyadh, Cairo and Amman, in the loop. And despite tense relations between Moscow and Washington, the Russian president is keen to keep the Trump administration involved in current efforts, as was evident in the joint presidential statement on Syria that was unveiled during a brief meeting in Vietnam earlier this month.
But while there will be three processes, which Moscow says will overlap, involving Geneva, Astana and Sochi, there are no guarantees that a final agreement will materialize any time soon. The fact is that Russia, as a key player, holds the most important pieces in the Syrian jigsaw puzzle. How it will eventually place them rests on its ability to satisfy the minimum needs of most players. That means keeping the Assad regime and the opposition engaged in credible talks while satisfying, along with the US, Ankara’s security concerns over the YPG’s arsenal. It also means that it must tackle Tehran’s ambitions to have long-term military presence in Syria, which is a huge problem for Jordan, Israel and the Gulf states. In addition, it must recruit the support of the United States in order to secure a workable deal.
It’s a tall order even for the crafty Putin, but what could help him is that all the players are suffering from Syria fatigue and want to see an end to what has proved to be a costly and dangerous conflict.

• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.