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Case Analysis 25 August, 2015

The Syrian crisis: military intensification and futile negotiations

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Following intense diplomatic machinations over the past few weeks, the parties to the Syrian conflict are now back at square one. All sides have returned to their original positions, with the only difference being the intensity of the Syrian regime’s attacks on the country’s civilian population, once the Zabadani ceasefire had expired without an agreement between Iran and Syrian resistance forces operating in the border town. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov thus put paid to any hopes – however remote – that Moscow’s policies towards Syria were at a turning point.

Lavrov contradicted recent comments by Khaled Khoja, President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, who, during a visit to Moscow in August, claimed that Russia’s commitment to the permanence of Bashar al Assad as president in the context of a peace settlement was beginning to shake. In fact, Lavrov insisted: “While some of our partners believe that it is necessary to agree in advance that at the end of the transitional period the president will leave his post, this position is unacceptable for Russia.”[1] Saudi Arabia took a diametrically opposed view, stating that the country would not join an international coalition against terrorism which included the Assad regime, a possibility floated by Moscow in June.

Russian-Saudi Rapprochement: no bearing on the conflict over Syria

Recent gains by the armed Syrian opposition, together with a Turkish policy of creating a security corridor along its Syrian frontier, gave the Assad regime’s allies the impetus they needed to begin frenetic diplomatic maneuvers on behalf of their partner in Damascus. With armed opposition forces, and in particular ISIL, approaching the Syrian regime’s strongholds along the coastline, Russian and Iranian anxieties about the impact of these advances have been felt more keenly. This compounds the impression given by recent fighting in areas such as Jisr al Shughoor and Ariha that the regime’s forces are losing morale, with the victory long promised to them by their leaders nowhere to be seen. Sensing the danger, and wishing to take advantage of a change of leadership in Saudi Arabia, Moscow led a new diplomatic initiative.

Russia’s overtures towards the Gulf states, and in particular to Saudi Arabia, began at the outset of this year, in the context of Western sanctions imposed following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and the wider conflict in Ukraine. They also coincided with a dramatic drop in oil prices, brought about by Saudi measures to flood the market with supply. The first sign of such Russian goodwill gestures came in April, when Moscow unexpectedly declined to exercise its veto against a UN Security Council resolution supporting Saudi-led efforts to act against the Houthi militia in Yemen. In addition to legitimizing Riyadh’s military efforts in Yemen, UNSC resolution 2216 also imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis, an ally of Iran. Moscow’s stance provided an opportunity for the rapid advancement of Saudi-Russian relations, leading to a breakthrough visit by Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to St Petersburg for talks with President Putin, where the two countries signed an agreement for the construction of 16 nuclear power plants in Saudi territory[2] . Speaking after the meeting, Putin suggested the formation of a broad-based coalition to combat terrorism, and specifically ISIL, which would include both Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime. Putin’s proposal was met by incredulity, even by Assad’s foreign minister Walid Muallem.

Despite this initial skepticism, however, Russia succeeded in brokering a meeting between Prince Mohammed and Major-General Ali Mamlouk, the Director of Syria's National Security Bureau. Saudi Arabia’s vision for a resolution to the Syrian crisis, expounded at the pair’s meeting in the Saudi Red Sea coastal town of Jeddah, entailed the withdrawal of Iranian-funded militia, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, from Syrian territory in exchange for an end to Saudi funding for armed Syrian opposition groups. Ultimately, the Saudis envisioned that Assad’s political future would be contingent on a political process and peace settlement agreed by Syrian parties, resulting in UN-supervised parliamentary and presidential elections[3]. When it was announced, the meeting appeared to signal a Russian diplomatic coup leading to a turnaround by Riyadh.

The Syrian regime’s response indicated its reliance on Iran, which has now shown itself to be effectively in charge of Damascus. In a speech delivered in late July, President Assad attacked Saudi Arabia and thanked Iran for its support. Assad used the occasion to legitimize the activities of, and express support for, Hezbollah and other foreign militia that were bolstering his rule, helping the regime make up for a deficiency in morale and manpower within the ranks of the regular army and across the Syrian population more broadly. Indeed, Assad did away with the last remaining fig leaf not only of the regime’s lip-service to pan-Arab nationalism but also of any specifically Syrian patriotism, when he claimed that “Syria belongs to those who defend, not those who [merely] are its nationals”[4] . Coming from an individual who presents himself as “President of Syria”, this was tantamount to a declaration of intent to carry out a population transfer of those Syrians not sufficiently loyal to the Assad government.

Within a week of the Syrian regime’s outright rejection of Saudi Arabia’s planned compromise, Russia’s putative wide-ranging anti-terror alliance also collapsed. This led Moscow, a long-time diplomatic champion of the Syrian regime, to withhold its objection to UNSC Resolution 2235, which called for an independent commission for the investigation of the use of chemical weapons within Syrian territory during 2013. Such a move could ultimately result in legal proceedings being brought against Assad regime officials, should there be evidence to show their complicity in the use of globally banned chemical weapons[5] .

Many regarded Russia’s surprising volte-face as a means of leverage against the regime in Damascus, which had previously hindered a resolution to the conflict. This seemed all the more likely since Moscow had long been preparing for a new round of negotiations between the contesting parties in Syria along the lines of the plan set up by Stefan Di Mistura, and unanimously accepted by the UN Security Council. This dramatic turn of events even led US President Obama to claim that “the window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria”[6]. Moscow’s new position also encouraged the continuation of Russian-Saudi dialogue, with Riyadh dispatching newly appointed Foreign Minister Adel al Jubair to Moscow on August 12, in order to build on progress made during a tripartite meeting with the Saudi, Russian and American foreign ministers in Doha earlier that month. Yet the Moscow meeting would prove to be a setback for efforts to achieve a resolution in Syria.

The results of diplomacy

While Al Jubair was en route to Moscow, he made it clear that his country would not be deterred by Assad’s refusal to accept Riyadh’s offer to end support for the armed opposition in exchange for the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syrian territory. Indeed, the Saudi foreign minister was unequivocal about the fact that his country continued to entertain the possibility of militarily toppling the Assad regime as a means of resolving the Syrian conflict. While affirming Riyadh’s desire to see Syrian civilian and military institutions preserved intact, Al Jubair also pointed out that the only political solution to the Syrian conflict which his government could envisage involved a return to the Geneva Principles. In his statements, meant primarily as a signal to Moscow, Al Jubair explicitly stated that this entailed the drafting of a new constitution for Syria, and the election of a new government that excluded Bashar al Assad. Speaking to journalists in Italy, Al Jubair made clear that this meant accepting one of only two possibilities: the war “will end either in a political process, which means a peaceful of power transition, or a military defeat of [Bashar] Al-Assad”[7].

Once in Moscow, Al Jubair quickly realized the depth of the chasm which lay between him and his Russian hosts. While Lavrov reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the permanence of Assad at the helm of the Syrian regime, his Saudi guest insisted that Riyadh would never join an anti-terror coalition in which the Assad regime took part[8]. Russia’s latest maneuvers were, it seems, revealed to Al Jubair as a ploy to ensure that there could be no political resolution to the Syrian crisis without Moscow’s approval and involvement. Through its latest machinations, which appeared to be policy reversals, the Russians were seemingly merely intent on accruing more and more bargaining chips to use as leverage.

As hopes for a joint Saudi-Russian initiative that could resolve the crisis in Syria were evaporating, the Assad regime’s bear hug of Tehran was growing increasingly tight.

While Assad’s regime remained lukewarm to Russian proposals of joining a regional anti-terror alliance that would place it in the same camp as many of its regional foes, a scenario that would see Damascus make large political concessions to its rivals that it could not really fulfill, it did however express some enthusiasm for an amended Iranian peace proposal. Unlike a previous iteration, this new plan did not call for a limiting of the constitutional powers of Syria’s president. The new proposal from Tehran included, instead, a constitutional stipulation on the need to protect minority communities within Syria. The other three main points within the plan included a ceasefire and closer control over Syria’s borders, the formation of a national unity government, and the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections. Yet the Assad regime and its cronies were the only group who paid any attention to the Iranian proposal.

The futility of these latest diplomatic initiatives was demonstrated by the intensification of violence. Today, fighters on the ground are scrambling to change the status quo, before a new round of political activity can begin to negotiate on the gains.


To read this Assessment Report as a PDF, please click here, or on the icon above. This Report was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on August 20, 2015, please click here.

[1] “Assad’s ouster ‘unacceptable’ as Syria peace precondition: Russia”, AFP, see online at: http://news.yahoo.com/assads-ouster-unacceptable-syria-peace-precondition-russia-165142980.html

[2] “Russia and Saudi Arabia ink nuclear energy deal, exchange invites”, see online: https://www.rt.com/news/268198-russia-saudi-nuclear-agreements/

[3] See “Saudi Initiative Presented at ‘Miracle Meeting’: presidential elections in Syria supervised by the world community”, Al Hayat, August 8, 2015 (link in Arabic): http://bit.ly/1KVQdlt

[4] See “The Scandalous Sentence in Assad’s speech”, Mohammed Kuraishan, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/middle-east/20107-the-scandalous-sentence-in-assads-speech

[5] See: “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2235 (2015), Establishing Mechanism to Identify Perpetrators Using Chemical Weapons in Syria”, online at the UN: http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12001.doc.htm

[6] “Obama sees slight opportunity for progress in Syria”, Gulf News, August 7, 2015, online: http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/syria/obama-sees-slight-opportunity-for-progress-in-syria-1.1562886

[7] “Saudi Arabia: Syrian crisis to end with Assad defeat”, Middle East Monitor, August 8, 2015: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/20296-saudi-arabia-syrian-crisis-to-end-with-assad-defeat

[8] “Saudi FM: No place for Assad in Syria’s future”, Al Araby Al Jadeed (English edition), August 11, 2015: http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/8/11/saudi-fm-in-moscow-syria-and-is-top-agenda