With all the pomp and grandeur one would expect out of a major peace conference, top-level diplomats from Russia, the Assad regime, and minor opposition figures began talks in Moscow on Monday. Putin has touted the effort as the last round of negotiations necessary to finally bring peace in Syria after four years of an incredibly destructive war. The absence of key actors in the Syrian conflict at the negotiating table, however, has already doomed the talks to failure.
While a US-led coalition of Western and Arab states continue to engage in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, the political situation in Syria has more or less been mired in the mud. The Assad regime continues to hold on to key urban centers like Damascus and its surrounding areas; Kurdish peshmerga control their self-declared Kurdish autonomous zones; the Islamic State continues its reign of terror in the north and northeast; and moderate Syrian opposition groups continue to fight for their very existence in various parts of the country. Previous attempts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict have all been unsuccessful, including the second round of Geneva talks in January 2014 (where almost 2,000 people died across Syria during the nine day conference), as well as an attempt by Russia itself this past January which merely resulted in a decision to talk again this month.
For all the sarcasm this conference will generate in Western media given Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, Putin does have a vested interest in a stable Syria, much more so than Europe or the United States. Syria is home to the Russian naval base, Tartus, one of Russia’s last remaining foreign military bases. The base is currently inactive, but Russia desperately wants to reopen its ports, given its strategic location, and reestablish a Russian naval foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean. But Russian interests in a Syrian peace run much deeper than simply those naval concerns. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime was Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, and acted as a strong buffer to Western intervention in the region. Russia’s counterbalancing influence was on full display in 2013 when Vladimir Putin wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” which played a large role in talking down the United States from coercing Assad to the table with airstrikes.
Of paramount domestic concern for Russia is the fact that, in the last two years, Syria has replaced Afghanistan as the most desired training ground for members of the Chechen insurgency. One of the Islamic State’s top battlefield commanders is a near perfect combination of what Putin-era Russians have been taught to fear: a Georgian-born, likely US-Trained ethnic Chechen gone AWOL. The leaders of the North Caucasian insurgency have declared allegiance to the Islamic State, and just this week, pro-IS insurgents carried out attacks in Dagestan. Chechen citizens are even using the war in Ukraine to practice their fighting against Russian-trained (or perhaps Russian regular) soldiers. Russia is lucky that regional instabilities have not spilled into the North Caucasus. If IS allegiance were to embolden the region, or if Chechens in Syria decide to take their newfound skills home, then Russia will easily become the large-economy power most demonstrably affected by the Syrian conflict.
Before the west designs its response to the current round of talks in Moscow, it would be well-served to fully understand what Moscow has at stake in Syria. Much of Putin’s foreign policy posturing is predicated on the consolidation of domestic interests in his favor. Without the simultaneous charm offensive, touting the Russian president as a peacemaker, his actions in Eastern Ukraine run the risk of creating a situation where the Russian emperor will be caught without any clothes. Russian media, the only source of information for most Russians, can spin Putin’s perfunctory peace talks into its regular narrative that Vladimir Putin is a misunderstood ideological alternative, and that Russia’s incredibly skillful diplomatic corps can end the world’s worst conflict when and how it chooses.
Even with Russian interests considered, Western skepticism of Putin’s ability as a peacemaker is well-founded. Not only has Vladimir Putin stoked a massively destructive conflict in Ukraine for the last year, he has also paraded the warring parties in front of the cameras many times before, with no measurable change in the conflicts he purported to negotiate. In 2014, in a similar show of supposed peacemaking ability, Putin hosted the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Russian Olympic town of Sochi, for talks over the hotly contested territory of Nagorono-Karabakh. Before the onset of the Ukrainian Crisis, Karabakh was the holy grail for want-to-be Post-Soviet peacemakers. To the surprise of few, Putin’s efforts did not result in any measurable change in Armenian-Azerbaijani behavior, and the disputed territory between the two has seen its deadliest months since the purported end of the conflict.
While Russia may be the large power most closely connected to Syria, its attempts to end the conflict are overly optimistic, if not divorced from reality. The Western-backed Syrian national coalition is boycotting the talks, saying that it would only engage in discussions if the talks led to the end of Assad’s regime. The Kurds were not even invited to the talks. Understandably, extremist groups like the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Hezbollah were not invited either. As a result, the only people in the room are members of the Assad regime and some representatives of fringe groups of the Syrian opposition who are amenable to the Assad regime staying in power, a sentiment shared by very few Syrians on the ground. It should also be noted that the US is now just as much a party to the conflict, given their involvement in thousands of airstrikes, as anyone else. Iran has also been heavily involved, though mostly through proxies like Hezbollah. As a result, these talks are already doomed to fail: you cannot resolve conflict via negotiations or peace talks when almost all of the warring parties are absent.
The exclusion of relevant warring parties from the negotiations table obviously raises the issue of how to deal with extremist or terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and whether or not they should be invited. As disgusting as the Islamic State’s tactics may be, the conflict in Syria still will not be resolved even if all the actors minus the Islamic State (and other terrorist organizations operating in Syria) agree to peacefully resolve their differences and get absolutely everything they want in the negotiations. The debate over negotiations with terrorists is certainly a contentious one and is one that is likely to be raised in the future, similar to the issues the United States and the Afghan government has faced with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The notion that the fighting in Syria could be ended in Moscow this week is a fools’ errand, best saved for the annals of pro-Kremlin pseudo-media, who already blame the aforementioned warring North on Washington. What the world will see in Russia this week over the course of the negotiations, is an expertly crafted show of illusion and slight-of-hand. Two outcomes are most likely: either no deal will be struck, and the matter will be quickly swept under the rug (as with Putin’s previous attempt to end the conflict), or some façade of a deal will be codified and signed and the world will watch Russia sing the praises of its chief diplomats while simultaneously preparing a narrative to blame the West and extremists for the inevitable violence of the following days.
Despite the predicted failure of these Syria talks given the lack of participants and the ulterior motives and outright hypocrisy of their host, it is very important to note the influence that Russia has over the Assad regime. A summit was called, and Assad’s representatives came running. This is likely because they believe (rightfully so) that any summit hosted by Moscow could only benefit them. Any future Syria summit needs to take the Russia-Assad relationship heavily into account. Perhaps the West has miscalculated this conflict, and an appeal to the region’s egos, one that only a tiger-hunting ex-spy can deliver, is in fact the perfect formula to stop the fighting.
In complex conflicts such as the civil war in Syria, rarely are there two clear-cut sides. As a result, it is vital to understand the relationships and interests of the various groups involved before moving forward in any type of peace talks. Russia’s influence over Assad and its geopolitical interests both in maintaining a base and preventing an influx of freshly trained fighters moving from Syria to Chechnya are important factors to take into account. The longstanding notion that the Assad regime has left the Islamic State mostly to its own devices for the majority of the conflict so it could focus on the moderate opposition is another issue of note. The moderate Syrian opposition’s strong stance on refusing to negotiate anything that does not include Assad leaving is another huge factor. The US interest in preventing the growth of a terrorist organization and its need to protect its fledgling ally Iraq are other critical components of the conflict. No matter how perfunctory, efforts must also be made to end conflicts in the surrounding region, especially in the face of growing influence and outright interventions from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The list of conflicts is long and getting longer. Moscow is no place to end the conflict, but perhaps it is time for the major powers to call an all-hands peace and borders conference for the region, not a showman’s façade of a conference for disinterested parties.