Sochi settlement talks hindered by reality on the ground

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Sochi settlement talks hindered by reality on the ground

What Russia wants to achieve in Sochi later this month remains uncertain, as the Syrian opposition, including key military factions, have decided not to attend. In fact, Moscow may have withdrawn its invitations having determined beforehand that those who insist on the departure of President Bashar Assad will not be welcome in the Russian resort. One thing is clear for now: President Vladimir Putin, having rescued the Damascus regime from imminent collapse and reversed its fortunes, wants to demonstrate that only Moscow can impose a political settlement to the six-year civil war.
And, as most Syrian opposition figures have warned, Sochi will replace Geneva and will sideline previous communiques, resolutions and statements. It is also clear by now that the so-called “Congress of National Dialogue” will be held regardless of who will attend. But, for Putin to give legitimacy to this process — having secured the backing of Iran and Turkey — he will have to crush any remaining insurgency on the ground. This explains the recent onslaught by government forces, supported by the Russian air force, on Idlib, the last rebel-held province where Al-Nusra Front and its allies have been congregating for months.
The Russian logic is simple: End the insurgency and Sochi could become a venue to declare surrender rather than an assembly where various Syrian representatives — 1,700 invitations will be issued — can discuss the future of their country. Putin can then implement a political plan that secures the survival of the regime, adopts a new constitution and carries forward the issues of a transitional governing body and presidential elections to a future date. Meanwhile, a settlement now will be added to Moscow’s strategic gains in Syria so far — two permanent Russian bases on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.
Simple and direct as this sounds, the Russian logic is not without real problems. For one, there is the issue of the elephant in the room: Thousands of US troops in northeastern Syria — a strategic swath of real estate that is vital for the country’s economic survival — who are backing and arming Syrian Kurdish fighters. The latter have been described as “traitors” by the regime but, as things stand now, Moscow is planning to invite their representatives to Sochi.
Russia and the Damascus government have termed the US military presence as an “occupation” and branded them “invaders.” Last week, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the US will remain in eastern Syria in 2018 and there will reportedly be “more US diplomats on the ground and more American contractors as well, as the fight against (Daesh) nears its end and the focus turns toward rebuilding and ensuring the terrorists do not return.” Neither the regime nor Russia can force the US to leave, while for Washington its presence guarantees it a role and a say on the future of Syria.

Putin has seized the initiative and will attempt to hammer together a one-sided deal but, with so many key players still active in Syria and pursuing their own ambitions, a breakthrough agreement is unlikely.

Osama Al Sharif

Another challenge for Moscow will be the Kurds and Turkey’s military — about 20,000 troops in addition to 15,000 Free Syrian Army fighters — in northern Idlib and near the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not want the Kurds to secure any gains in Sochi and he rejects their attendance as a matter of principle. He will make sure that the regime advance in Idlib is checked and will be willing to trade Al-Nusra for the Kurds to ensure Ankara’s long-term strategic interests.
An additional problem for Moscow will be the fate of Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who have made considerable gains in southern and southwestern Syria, not far from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Israel will not tolerate having an Iranian presence so close to its borders and, more importantly, it cannot look the other way as these hostile groups establish permanent bases with land access to Iran.
But Moscow should also realize that it would be difficult for government forces to maintain control of the areas they liberated without Russian air cover. This means that Putin's investment in Syria will be costly and long-term. 
With so many key players — Iran, Turkey, the US and Israel, and non-state actors — still active in Syria, Moscow’s push to extract a political deal at Sochi will not be easy. For the regime, it will further increase its dependency on Russia’s backing. For the Syrian opposition, it will deepen its marginalization but may also result in much-needed restructuring and unity.
Repeated attempts to make the Geneva rounds work were met with failure because Moscow refuses to put pressure on the regime to engage in genuine negotiations. Instead, the pressure had shifted to the opposition, which has increasingly become irrelevant and isolated, having lost its international backers. Now Putin has seized the initiative and will attempt to hammer together a one-sided deal at Sochi. He might succeed on paper, but nothing on the ground indicates that his ploy will work.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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