The Saudi-Iranian conflict will compel Moscow to make a hard choice: stand with its Iranian partner or step aside and remain ostensibly neutral.

However Russia decides to react to the ongoing spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the consequences for the Kremlin’s goals in the Middle East will be negative.

On the one hand, keeping quiet would affect the dynamics of Russian−Iranian relations that had been on the rise. Moscow invested diplomatic and economic effort in improving the dialogue with Tehran,includingthe opening of a credit line. It cannot afford tolosethese dividends considering Russia’s economic dire straits.The Russian authorities are desperate to retain Iran within its sphere of influence and avoid any drift westwards. Without Iranian ground forces fighting the opponents of the Assad regime, it will be difficult for Moscow to attainits goals in Syria −Russia needs Iran’s military and political support to compel the Syrian opposition and its sponsors to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s silence on the diplomatic quarrel between Tehran and Riyadh would also provide opponents of Russo-Iranian rapprochement among Iranian reformists and Russian pro-Western policymakers with furtherproof that the two countries are unable to forge any kind of effective partnership.

If, however, Moscow takes the Iranian side, this would affect Russian relations with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)−whose money is still considered by the Kremlin as a potential source of investmentintothe Russian economy. The financial support and political blessing of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is important for the successful implementation of joint projects with Egypt such as the creation of a joint industrial zone or the development of the nuclear industry in Egypt. The Russo−Iranian alliance undermines Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to settle the Syrian crisis by making the Saudis less willing to talk to Russiaand effectively drags Moscow into the middle of the broader Sunni−Shia confrontation, allowing anti-Russian political forces in the Middle East to portray Kremlin as an enemy of the Sunni world.

This will be a serious threat, not only to the Russian position in the region, but also, conceivably, for the domestic security of Russia, where the 15 million-strong Muslim community is predominantly Sunni.Salafi groupingsin the Gulf have depicted Russians as new crusaders at least since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Moscow received a warning in October 2015 when approximately50 Saudi clerics signed an open declaration calling for jihad against Moscow. Thishas created an ideological background for the unification of radical forces in Syria and provides motivation for supporters of radical Islam in the GCC to intensify their financial support for Islamists inside Russia.

(Russian silence on Tehran’s diplomatic confrontation with Riyadh might also be an attempt to improve Moscow’s image in the Sunni world.This image severely suffered after the beginning of the Russian bombings of the Syrian opposition that together with the radical Islamists became one of the main targets of the Russian airforces in the autumn of last year.)

By supporting Tehran, Moscow will most likely harm relations with its ‘silent partner’ in the Middle East – Israel – whose position on the annexation of Crimea, on Western sanctions against Russia and on Russian air forces in Syria corresponds to Russian interests. Recent statements by Israeli officials demonstrated concernsabout growing Russian−Iranian cooperation in Syria and beyond. Previously, Israel tolerated the rapprochement between Moscow and Tehran as long as it was not considered as a threat to the national security of the country. Yet, recently, Israeli officials have begun to openly worry that the Russian government may begin to close its eyes to anti-Israeli moves by Tehran. Although these speculations seem to have little basis, active Russian support of Tehran in its confrontation with Saudi Arabia would almost certainly be considered in Israel as further proof of the growing Russian-Iranian alliance.

There is also a dilemma related to Russia’s image on the international stage. Putin tries hard to maintain an image ofaleader who does not leave his partners in trouble, but the Kremlin also traditionally positions itself as the main (sometimes only) protector of international law. Iran is a partner. Yet the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was a clear violation of international norms. From this point of view, backing a country with a laissez-faire attitude towards the rights of foreign diplomats might not be in Moscow’sinterests.

The Russian authorities dounderstand the difficulty of their situation. Consequently, they are trying to fudge it and avoidboth complete neutrality andallying fully with Tehran. Are there any alternatives?Shortly after the beginning of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in early January, Russia declared its readiness to play a mediating role between Riyadh and Tehran.This would allow the Kremlin avoid a further diplomatic disaster and to burnish its image internationally. Sadly, the initiative has little chance of success: the Saudis simply do not trust Russia.Theyconsider it aloyal ally of Iran.Besides, Riyadh is interested in Tehran’s isolation, not its reintegration.

So Moscow must choose between two bad options– both of which involve losing investment and influence.

Initially published by Chatham House

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 21 October 2015 18:09

Moscow Plays Poker in Syria: What’s at Stake?

Russian military deployment in Syria should not be considered as the core goal of Moscow’s diplomacy but its instrument. It is also a serious mistake to present Russian efforts in the country as the result of a game of “chicken” between Moscow and the West. Moscow is playing a different type of game that could be characterized as “geostrategic poker”, where the Assad regime is logically considered Russia’s main stake. This stake allows the Russians to influence the situation on the ground and demonstrate their importance in the international arena by positioning Moscow as one of those players without whom the Syrian question cannot be solved. By increasing military support to the Syrian government the Russian authorities simply strengthened their stake. Now they are starting to reveal their hand.

Misreading Moscow

Since May 2015, the West and its Middle Eastern partners have been periodically failing to read Russian intentions on Syria. First, this happened when they decided that, after playing a positive role in the settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue, Moscow would immediately help the U.S. and EU to settle the Syrian conflict. In early August 2015, Turkish President Recep Erdogan believed that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin already made a decision to shift support away from the official Damascus government. During summer 2015, intensive meetings between Russian, American and Saudi officials only strengthened the confidence of those analysts and policymakers who expected changes in the Kremlin’s stance on Syria. They argued that Russian withdrawal of support for Assad was a matter of time and Moscow was only trying to bargain a better deal.

Yet, in September 2015, the Russian authorities finally put an end to these speculations. In spite of all expectations the Kremlin decided to raise its stakes in the Syrian campaign: Moscow not only increased the volume of its military supplies to Damascus and improved the quality of provided equipment but launched air strikes against radical Islamists groupings fighting against the Assad regime.

As a result, by 1 October 2015, Moscow clearly demonstrated that the Russians are not going to alternate their position on Damascus. And that’s where the international community probably made a mistake for the second time: instead of trying to understand the reasons for Russian behaviour, Western media sources launched a hysterical campaign arguing that Moscow is about to send its ground forces to Syria. However, Moscow has neither abandoned Assad, nor plans to put its full-fledged army forces on the ground. This simply does not fit in with the Russian plans and the Kremlin never hid its true intentions. On 28 September 2015, during his speech at the UN General Assembly and meetings in New-York, Putin clearly stated that Russia will continue to talk to the international community on Syria but it does not mean that the military support of the Assad regime will be stopped.

Keep calm …

It is necessary to separate news about the Russian airstrikes and the rumours about Russian readiness to send significant ground troops to Syria for combat. The latter speculations should probably be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, the number of Russian advisors may indeed grow but this has a logical explanation as the volume and range of equipment supplied by Moscow to the Syrian regime raises. Consequently, more personnel are needed to train the Syrians on how to use the new equipment.

Secondly, the deployment of full-fledged ground forces for a long period and far from Russian borders would require immense economic resources. And that’s what the Kremlin lacks. Moreover, Moscow probably remembers from the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989) that this was one of the factors that exhausted and shattered the USSR economy; it does not want to repeat this experience.

Thirdly, the war in Afghanistan also left a psychological scar in the Russian popular mind (often compared with the Vietnam syndrome in the U.S.) that make it difficult for the Russian authorities to get popular approval for the massive use of armed forces abroad. Moscow’s experience in Ukraine should not be compared with the Syrian case: Ukraine is still considered as a part of the Russian world/space.

Finally, the limited use of force completely satisfies the Kremlin’s needs. Russia’s actual military presence in Syria definitely increases the regime’s chances for long term survival. Even Moscow’s military experts acknowledge that it would be naive to think that the Kremlin will not use its air power to help the Syrian army. It is believed that the Nusra front is probably one of the main targets of the Russian air force right now as its fighters supposedly represent the main threat to the Assad regime.

Apart from that, the current Russian presence makes any Western military intervention in Syria extremely challenging. Previously, Moscow had suspicions that the U.S.-led coalition could be used to overthrow the Assad regime. The deployment of the Russian air force in Syria allays Moscow’s concerns. At the same time, by exchanging information and trying to coordinate its military efforts with other countries Moscow continues promoting its idea of the anti-Islamic State coalition that would involve the Syrian regime, and, thus, bring Assad back from the international isolation. Russia has also strengthened its own diplomatic position by proving that any decision on Syria cannot be taken without Moscow’s participation.

Everything should go according to our plan

At the same time, the Russian ultimate goal in Syria is much more ambitious than just strengthening the Assad regime.  The Kremlin remains extremely interested in the end of the Syrian war and, as it was recently re-confirmed by Putin in New-York, this settlement is only possible through the beginning of a national dialogue between the regime and the anti-government forces (excluding radical Islamists and foreign fighters groupings).  However, the Kremlin would like to launch this reconciliation process on its own conditions. These conditions include the preservation of the territorial integrity of Syria, immediate formation of a united anti-Islamic State coalition, the saving of remaining state structures and the transformation of the Syrian regime only within the framework of the existing government mechanisms.  Putin continues to insist on a peace settlement in Syria based around the existing Syrian state structures and institutions and with some sort of power-sharing between the Damascus regime and the “healthy” elements in the opposition.

Moscow also insists that the removal of Assad from power should not be a precondition for the beginning of the national dialogue. The Kremlin does believe that the fall of Assad’s regime or his early removal will turn Syria into another Libya. According to Moscow decision makers, this will inevitably mean the further radicalization of the Middle East and the exporting of Islamic radicalism to Russia, the Caucasus region and Central Asia. The Russian authorities genuinely believe that by helping Assad they are protecting their national security interests.  In August 2014, Lavrov called the radical Islamists “the primary threat” to Russia in the region.  According to Russia, Assed is the only person able to guarantee the integrity of the Syrian state and the military institutions needed to fight against Daesh/IS and other radical Islamists. Although Moscow does not exclude that Assad could be replaced in the future, it should happen no earlier than when there is confidence in any new leaders who are able to control the situation in Syria.

This vision of the situation drastically differs from that of the West and many Middle Eastern powers that consider Assad as the source of the Syrian problem rather than its solution. Yet, the Kremlin is determined to change the international opinion. Presumably, the Russian authorities adopted a two track approach. On the one hand, since the spring 2015, the Russian authorities intensified their dialogue with the international community. This step made some policymakers mistakenly think that Moscow was looking for ways to trade Assad for some economic and political concessions. Meanwhile, the main task of the Kremlin was to impose its views on the conflict settlement. On the other hand, the Russians increased the volume and quality of military supplies as well as launched the military operation in the country to guarantee that the Syrian regime will make it long enough to see the moment than the Kremlin achieves the break through on the diplomatic track.

It works

So far, the Russian plan works. The Syrian regime will stay in power for some time. Meanwhile, the Russian idea to establish an anti-Islamic State coalition with an active role for the Syrian regime, and, thus, brings back Bashar Assad from the international isolation, is gradually finding support outside of Russia. Thus, during his August trip to Moscow, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed support to the Russian initiative. Some western politicians also started to express their ideas that the West probably should deal with Damascus to succeed in its anti-IS struggle.

All of this, in turn, makes Moscow believe that it has chosen the right strategy.  Consequently, any attempts to convince the Russians not to increase military support for Damascus or change their stance on the conflict will be challenging. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to ask whether the international community should deal with Russia on Syria?

It not only should, but probably has to continue the dialogue with the Russians. First of all, Moscow does not want to escalate confrontation with the West over Syria beyond the current level. Moreover, the Russian authorities are doing their best to clarify their position. Thus, on 15 September 2015, during the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe, Putin unexpectedly devoted most of his speech to the Syrian issue. His presentation was balanced, devoid of any anti-American rhetoric and definitely addressed to the West, as this topic lies far beyond the interests of the other CSTO members. Putin stressed that the real goal is a peace settlement in Syria.

The Russian vision of the future of Syria is also changing.  Recent statements made by Putin and Lavrov in September show that Moscow has finally stopped labelling all fighting opposition forces as “terrorist” and recognized at least some of them as legitimate players. Previously, Moscow agreed to deal only with the political wing of the Syrian (preferably, official) opposition. I t is still unclear who those military forces are that Moscow now wants to include in the national reconciliation process and the building of anti-IS coalition. It definitely plans to build relations with the Syrian Kurds but also with those whom Putin vaguely determined as “healthy” opposition.  On 9 and 13 September 2015, the Russian MFA clarified this definition by stating Moscow’s readiness to include into the anti-IS coalition the Syrian moderate opposition and those Syrians who are not foreign fighters or international jihadists. Theoretically, this statement allows for the legitimisation in Moscow’s eyes of those moderate Islamists whohave serious influence on the ground but whoRussia previously avoided dealing with. Finally, in the early October 2015, the Russian MFA openly declared Moscow readiness to negotiate with the Free Syrian Army.

In September 2015, Russian officials also became more certain about the possibility of political reforms in the country and views about a post-Assad Syria. Until now, the Russian authorities have considered Assad the only person capable ofguaranteeing the integrity of the remnants of the state and military institutions which survived the previous years of conflict and are still capable offighting against Daesh/IS. Yet, Moscow does not exclude that he could be replaced in the future. However, this should not happen before there is confidence that the new leaders are able to control the situation in Syria. Ultimately, Moscow sees the gradual transformation of the regime as inevitable and has raisedthe possibility of conducting early parliamentary elections.

Keep on playing

Moscow has few doubts, so far, that it has chosen the right strategy. In view of this, any attempts to browbeat Moscow into stopping its military build-up in Syria, not to speak of changing its longstanding stance on the conflict are a waste of time. The Kremlin has carefully stage-managed this entire effort that turned its military presence in Syria into a new regional factor. Moscow is still determined to change the international position on Syria’s future via a two-track approach. Yet, what the Kremlin is going to get at the end is not necessary completely contrary toWestern interests: Moscow accepts the idea of the post Assad Syria and simply wants to guarantee the Russian presence in it.


Initially published: 


Published in Tribune
Sunday, 20 September 2015 11:54

What exactly is Russia doing in Syria?

Russia's increasing supply of arms and instructors to Syria are among the most controversial issues in world media. But what is really going on?

Summary⎙ Print Moscow's stance on the Syrian conflict reveals an ever-complicated web of alliances, armament and regional plays, widening the diplomacy gap between the United States and Russia on Middle East policy. 

First, Moscow has never concealed that it provides military-technical assistance to Damascus. This is done in accordance with international law and almost exclusively in the framework of signed contracts, as Russian officials constantly emphasize. At the same time, in the past, Moscow did not deliver weapons that could cause serious complications in Damascus’ relations with its neighbors. For example, in the recent past, Russia scrapped plans to supply S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Syria after Israel strongly opposed the deal on the grounds that the systems could cover practically the whole Israeli territory.

Second, the issue of fighting against the Islamic State (IS) has come to the fore. The United States and a number of coalition allies are already bombing IS positions in Syria. It is well-known that Russia has been calling for the formation of a broad coalition with the participation of global and regional powers to wage war against this evil, which Russia regards as a direct threat to its national security. Suffice it to say that from one single area in the Volga region, which is famed for its tolerance, no fewer than 200 people have already left to fight on the side of IS. This is to say nothing of the North Caucasus. The task of forming such a broad coalition is still far from being fulfilled.

Third, the moderate Syrian opposition forces, which are leading the fight on two fronts, are much weaker than the terrorists and are losing ground. According to Russian experts, the opposition controls about 5% of Syria’s territory, while almost half of the country is in the hands of IS. Under these circumstances, assistance to Damascus is viewed exclusively in the context of its struggle with the jihadists.

While Moscow has been particularly vocal in recent months on national reconciliation and developing contacts with many groups in the Syrian opposition, it continues to believe that the Syrian government is an ally to those who are fighting against IS and considers this fight a priority. As a Russian official told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “We believe that we aren’t helping President [Bashar al-] Assad as such, but the Syrian state, whose legitimate government sits in Damascus.”

According to reports, deliveries of arms and equipment from Russia to Syria have indeed increased. Some Russian media, citing conflict expert Yuri Lyamin — who blogs at imp-navigator — revealed a rise in the number of ships passing through the Black Sea straits in August and September. Lyamin speaks of the landing ships Novocherkassk, Azov, Karolev, Caesar Kunikov, Nikolay Filchenkov, as well as — for the first time — civilian ferry Alexander Tkachenko. Weapons, equipment, ammunition and supplies were delivered; trainers and advisers were dispatched.

Particular attention is being paid to the delivery of six supersonic interceptor MiG-31 fighter jets to Syria, in partial fulfillment of a 2007 contract, according to a Turkish news agency. It is clear that, due to their characteristics, these planes cannot be used to combat IS and are instead solely intended to protect the country’s airspace in view of potential external threats. These aircraft are able to control a frontline of 800-900 kilometers (497-559 miles).

Unsurprisingly, these reports are generating a flurry of rumors about Moscow’s direct involvement in the armed confrontation with Islamist extremists in Syria, something the Kremlin denies. When a reporter at the East Economic Forum, held Sept. 4 on Russky Island, asked whether Russia is ready to fight in the Middle East, President Vladimir Putin answered that it would be premature to address the subject: “We are considering various options, but what you mentioned is not on the agenda.”

These assurances, however, have failed to allay the concerns of the West, including the United States, as Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in a telephone conversation Sept. 5. According to the anonymous source, one may wonder why Western air forces are allowed to strike IS positions inside Syria, while the Syrian air force — equipped with Russian weaponry — isn’t. At the same time, Russian public opinion is clearly against the direct participation of Russian troops in combat operations in the Middle East.

Russia, however, also delivers a large amount of humanitarian aid to Syria. Bulgaria’s decision to close its airspace Sept. 1-24 to Russian aircraft carrying humanitarian aid drew a negative reaction in Moscow. To reach Syria there are other air corridors, though it appears Greece granted a US request to cancel overflight permits for Russian airplanes bound for Syria. Russia has demanded an explanation from the authorities of these countries, and efforts to close down an air corridor between Russia and Syria — which journalists call the “Syria express” — are unlikely to succeed.

Another hot topic being discussed in the world media is the potential establishment of a full-fledged Russian naval base in Syria, in addition to the Russian navy’s logistic support station in Tartus, where a total of 50 people serve. Citing a source in the military-diplomatic field, the Sept. 3 issue of the Russian newspaper Argumenty Nedeli reported the possibility that Russia could install such a base in the coastal town of Jableh — which has a population of 80,000 people — near Latakia, “for the benefit of the navy, air force and special operations forces.”

For some analysts this is totally unrealistic. Nevertheless, the newspaper hypothetically broached the possible deployment at this base (were it to be built) of Pantsir S1 and Bastion missiles, Buk-M and even S-300PMU2 air-defense systems, which — provided the Syrian interceptor fighter jets were also deployed there — could foil any plan to enforce a no-fly zone.

One shouldn’t link Moscow’s plans to continue providing assistance to Damascus to Tehran’s plans. Iran is pursuing its independent policy toward the Syrian crisis, guided by its own national interests. Russia is doing the same, while also taking into account its developing relations with the Arab Gulf states. But could it be that the scale of the fight against IS in Syria will expand without the creation of a broad coalition of regional and global players, and even the necessary coordination — a fact that can only hinder success in this struggle?

Other questions are in order: How will the unfolding new round of confrontations affect prospects for a Syrian peace process? Will the intensified war of external actors — Western states and some regional countries — with IS and other terrorist groups stall progress toward implementing the provisions of the Geneva communique issued June 30, 2012, to end the civil war? The fact that lately Russia has dramatically broadened diplomatic contacts with various opposition groups, as well as meeting with Syrian officials, Western and Arab statesmen and diplomats, confirms Moscow has an interest in finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis. On this basis, it supported the plan of international mediator Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy for the Syria crisis. Will he be able to stop the bloodshed in Syria?


Published in Tribune

Russia is decidedly stepping up its Middle East policy, as evidenced, for example, by the number of visits to Moscow already held or planned for this year by heads of Arab states. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, and the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, are expected to visit Russia before the end of 2015. Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s upcoming visit to Moscow this year is of particular importance, as it indicates Riyadh’s serious intention to improve relations with Russia. As is widely known, Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted the Saudi king’s invitation to visit Riyadh.

An impressive number of leaders of various Syrian opposition groups also visited Moscow this month. The consultations did not reveal any fundamental change in the Kremlin’s Syria policy, but they did reveal the willingness of Russian diplomacy to have more frequent contact with the opposition.

Some basic features stand out in Russia’s policy toward the Syrian crisis. The first is a commitment to fighting terrorism and extremism, with the Islamic State (IS) as a top priority. Putin has called for creation of a broad international coalition to combat this scourge, starting from the premise that Damascus must be a member of this coalition, as it is already engaged in a war with IS. In this regard, there are obvious differences between Moscow’s approach, on the one hand, and on the other, that of the Syrian opposition and influential regional and global players.

The second feature is seeking a settlement of the Syrian crisis through peaceful, diplomatic means. Commitment to this principle unites Russia and the vast majority of its partners, though disagreements over its interpretation remain. A key question concerns establishing a transitional governing body in accordance with the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012.

Russia has backed the plan of Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria, which envisages an international contact group as well as four intra-Syrian working groups. The plan should be implemented as soon as possible, given the catastrophic humanitarian situation on the ground and the growing military potential of IS and other terrorist groups. However, according to sources from the diplomatic community, Washington intends to delay the creation of a contact group until October, when the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program will be definitively settled.

Unlike a number of its partners, Russia believes that only the Syrians can resolve the question of who should govern them and how, and categorically rejects any form of external interference in Syria, particularly in the form of military intervention.

Russian analysts believe Turkey’s plan to create a so-called security zone in northern Syria is unlikely to be implemented without direct Turkish intervention that could lead to a de facto Turkish-Kurdish war, as well as cause the unanimous condemnation of Arab governments. Many of those governments already consider the Turkish strikes on the territory of Iraq and Syria as a violation of the sovereignty of these two states.

Recently, however, some articles in Russian and foreign media raise the possibility that Russian commandos may be sent to Syria to evacuate Russian personnel, or to safeguard the technical maintenance unit of the Russian ships in Tartus and protect Russian arms supplies. The origin of those stories was a statement by the commander of the Russian Airborne Troops (VDV), Col. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, who told reporters Aug. 4 that the VDV “are ready to assist Syria in countering terrorists, if such a task is set by Russia’s leaders,” provided the relevant UN Security Council mandate has been given. Ruslan Gorevoy, a journalist from the Russian newspaper Nasha Versiya, even claims — very provocatively and without basis — that “the decision to send military assistance to Syria has already been taken” and “in September a ‘limited contingent’ of the Russian army may be in Damascus.” For now, this is only the fervent (if not sick) imagination of that author speaking.

Let us return to the recent talks between Russian diplomats and some groups of the Syrian opposition, which this writer attended. On Aug. 14, after the discussions, the head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Khaled Khoja, stated, “Moscow is no longer committed to supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unconditionally, and emphasizes the need to preserve the territorial integrity of the country.” This is both true and untrue. True, because Russia does not support individual leaders, but the states they lead. Untrue, because Russia strongly disagrees with the argument put forward by the opponents of Damascus that the Syrian leader has lost his legitimacy.

Moscow is well aware that a very large segment of the Syrian population continues to support not only the regime per se, but also its leader, though the number of his opponents is also large.

One can agree with the leader of the opposition coalition, however, that the Russian position is characterized by “flexibility and understanding.” And it is this that makes it possible for Moscow to continue contacts with all opposition groups except for those designated as terrorist. It can be assumed that Russian diplomacy will persevere in its efforts to consolidate the opposition on a moderate and negotiation-oriented platform.

It is true, though, as Russian media commented on Khoja’s statements after talks in Moscow, that the National Coalition has no plans to participate in the Moscow-supervised intra-Syrian dialogue, since Russia “wants to reach a compromise between the opposition and Assad to form a coalition against terrorism.”

Likewise, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it has urged Khoja to take an active part in developing “a constructive collective platform to begin dialogue with the government of the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Mutual understanding between Moscow and opposition groups such as the National Coalition will continue to be hindered by the fact that these groups equate IS and government forces. Still, there is some cause for optimism in that this opposition, like Russia and most global and regional actors, aims at preserving all state institutions in Syria, including the army, under any reform of the country.

Moscow believes a transitional governing body should be decided by consensus during inclusive negotiations among Syrians themselves. At the same time, Russian experts would like to see greater clarity in the strategy of the Syrian opposition in relation to the transition process. This applies, for example, to the issue of the future character of the Syrian state, which is a point of contention with leaders of the Kurdish groups. Compromise formulas like “democratic decentralization” or “pluralistic decentralization” look quite convincing, but they also elicit circumspection from the supporters of a centralized unitary state as well as all Arab nationalists. Still, it is clear to them that serious guarantees for the rights of all minorities in Syria are an essential element of any settlement.

One provision in the platform of the National Coalition and a number of other opposition groups that raises questions among Russian experts is the issue of so-called “transitional justice.” In this regard, it is feared that this principle could become an excuse to exact revenge against those whom the opposition wants to convince to share, or completely relinquish power. According to many analysts, the examples of South Africa, Cambodia and other countries — those which have experienced post-conflict transition while using the tool of amnesty and refusing to take revenge — look quite appealing.


The article was initially published in Al Monitor:


Published in Tribune