by Andrew Korybko
As all observers have realized, the situation in Syria has noticeably gone from bad to worse. ISIL is advancing , the US and Turkey are preparing for a “ comprehensive battle ” there (ostensibly against the terrorists, but most reckon that it’s really against the Syrian Arab Army ), and Erdogan’s War on the Kurds is proving to be a smokescreen for the creation of an Kurdish-free “safe zone” for anti-Damascus terrorists. The US and its Turkish ally know that they have 6 months to finish what they started and depose of the democratically elected government in Syria before part of the billions of dollars of frozen Iranian funds are returned to Tehran and immediately transferred to assist with Damascus’ defense. In light of the rapidly deteriorating circumstances and the situational urgency that’s compelling the US to speed up its end game in the Levant, Russia and Syria have taken to an intense round of shuttle diplomacy to an effort to stave off a wider war and save the last secular outpost in the Mideast.
The article begins by detailing some of the more meaningful meetings that have been held thus far as well as describing what their overall effect has been. Then, it speaks upon the ones that are to come and what they could eventually lead to in terms of calming the current crisis, which it must be said was formally triggered by Turkey’s offensive against Syria and its decision to allow the US to use the Incirlik base for bombing the country. Concluding everything is the suggestion of a fail-safe measure that Russia can resort in the event that diplomacy doesn’t reach the desired dividends, which in the event that it’s implemented, would deter the US and Turkey from attacking Syrian Arab Army positions and thus prevent the sought-after regime change scenario from ever materializing.
Keeping Count Of The Meetings
There have been quite a lot of bilateral and multilateral meetings that have taken place since the latest crisis broke out, and it’s useful to list some of the most important ones in chronological progression so that one may have a better idea of how things have progressed. My no means, however, should the list be taken as being comprehensive, as there have definitely been other meetings that occurred (even public ones) which are not being noted for brevity’s sake:
The two sides have actually been engaging in shadow diplomacy for at least the past couple of months, with the fruits of their labor first becoming publicly apparent only at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. At the event, not only did both sides sign a nuclear energy cooperation agreement, but it was also announced that President Putin and King Salman intend to visit each other by year’s end. Nothing was said about their consultations on Syria, but it can be taken as evident that they certainly discussed this most pressing geopolitical issue that’s served as an enormous hindrance to the elevation of bilateral relations. Considering later diplomatic developments that will be examined below, this most certainly seems to be the case.
Activist and analyst Ghassan Kadi translated and explained a monumental media report (which has not been denied or discredited by anyone) detailing a secret meeting that Russia arranged between the Syrian Chief of Home Security and the Saudi Defense Minister. According to the report, the meeting occurred sometime in mid-July, and the gist of it was that Saudi Arabia has finally realized that its Wahhabist spawn has become uncontrollable, and that it must therefore extricate itself from the proxy quagmire that it’s gotten itself into in Syria before the blowback becomes unbearable.
Additionally, the Saudis’ strategic interests in Yemen are overriding whatever cares they have further afield, and to their decision-making establishment, they’d rather divert the resources, money, and time from the proven-to-have-failed War on Syria to their latest military adventure along their southern border. Add to it Riyadh’s paranoid fears that Yemen has become a base for Iranian proxies, and it makes sense why the Kingdom would accept a defeat in Syria in order to salvage whatever strategic ground they can from Yemen (and as soon as possible, at that).
The next main stop on Russia’s diplomatic carousel was Lavrov’s meeting with his Qatari and Saudi counterparts in Doha at the GCC meeting, which also saw him have a conversation with Kerry. Syria was obviously on the agenda, and it’s likely that Russia spoke to the Saudis about their possible proxy pull-out; the Qataris about dropping their support for Al Nusra ; and the US about accepting its loss in achieving regime change and in dealing with the practicality of working with President Assad. What is solidly known, however, is that Russia used the occasion to unveil the details of its latest anti-ISIL initiative , which sees a coalition of regional states (Saudi Arabia among them) working hand-in-glove with the Syrian government to squash the terrorists. It’s not forecast that the proposal will lead to any concrete results in the near future, but it’s salient for being the only non-US-led anti-ISIL coalition suggestion at this time, and as such, it provides a starting point for each of the relevant players to beginning discussing the details of what it would look like, provided that they (or some of them) have the political will to do so.
Almost concurrently with Lavrov’s visit to Doha, Russian Special Envoy to the Mideast Mikhail Bogdanov attended a meeting with the Syrian and Iranian Foreign Ministers in Tehran. The exact details of their pow-wow weren’t released, save for the important announcement that Iran will soon be submitting a four-point UN proposal for resolving the Syrian Crisis. Syrian MP Khaled Al-Aboud elaborated a bit by intimating that it would essentially be a joint Russian-Iranian effort due to the fact that both sides work closely together when it comes to Syria and complement each other’s peace-promoting activities there. The significance of this meeting lies not only in its conflict-resolution contents, but also in its specific timing, in that it demonstrates that Russia is capable of simultaneously conducting multiple layers of crisis diplomacy (Lavrov in Doha, Bogdanov in Tehran) to deal with the War on Syria, thereby negating the naysayers (such as Erdogan ) who believe Russia is going to “give up Assad”.
The final round of jet-set diplomacy saw Lavrov meeting once more with Kerry in Kuala Lumpur on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, where the two dignitaries once more discussed the War on Syria. The most impactful news coming out of this round of talks was that the US and Russia had agreed to a draft UN resolution about chemical weapons use in Syria. It must be said here that this comes off as a double-edged gambit by both sides, since the US could use false accusations of chemical weapons use by the government (as it tried to do in 2013) to ‘justify’ a full-fledged military response, but also, Russia’s proposed anti-ISIL coalition could use the proof that terrorists had recently employed such weapons (and likely will continue doing so) to christen their own united military campaign. Still, the US isn’t above utilizing the unethical excuse of its own proxies using chemical weapons to formally launch its conventional regime change campaign. The draft UN resolution might of course end up being a non-event in the current crisis, but by the looks of it, it could likely have a more impactful role than many observers currently believe.
While not officially confirmed by either side due to the sensitivity behind their talks, in an Al-Akhbar article translated by Ghassan and Intibah Kadi, it’s revealed that Syria and the US have been directly contacting one another in secret, and that Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem’s visit to Oman (the first to an Arab country since the war began) might lead to a surprise meeting with his Saudi counterpart. Another outlet reports that “Oman-based al-Watan said there may also be a meeting among top representatives from Syria, Oman, Iran and Saudi Arabia”, which would confer with Al-Akhbar’s analysis and source. As the latter notes in the Kadis’ translation, Muallem’s Gulf visit wouldn’t have been possible had the US not authorized his hosts to initiate it, indicating that the US might sincerely be open to a non-regime change scenario in Syria and possibly even eventually accepting (no matter how regrettably this may come to some Washington strategists) of Russia’s anti-ISIL proposal. It’s still way too early to tell where all of this is going, or even if it will lead to anything at all, but the seemingly corroborated reports of a Syria-US opening do create grounds for speculation, and perhaps even hope, that the US might be on course to back down from its Brookings Institute-advised invasion of Syria .
The Next Steps
The coming week will continue the diplomatic marathon over Syria, with two important visits possibly occurring in Moscow:
“Syrian National Coalition”:
The so-called “Syrian National Coalition” (SNO), the main anti-government organization opposed to President Assad, has been invited by Russia to visit the capital next week. While this isn’t the first time such an offer has been extended (it was previously refused), should the group agree, it would demonstrate that its foreign patrons recognize Moscow’s mediation efforts and are open to allowing their proxy to partake in the Inter-Syrian Dialogue that has taken place there twice before. One shouldn’t get their hopes up in any case, but the fact that Russia has once more invited the SNO at this particular juncture in time also shows how serious it is about revving up the reconciliation efforts prior to the US and Turkey’s possible commencement of an all-out conventional war against Syria.
Saudi Foreign Minister:
Unlike the SNO, the Saudi Foreign Minister is to be a confirmed guest in Moscow next week (as stated by a source in the Saudi Embassy), where he’ll meet with Lavrov supposedly to speak about King Salman’s forthcoming visit later this year. While that’ll surely be one of the things that they talk about, it’s improbable to believe that the two Foreign Ministers won’t continue their conversation about Syria. In fact, it could very well be that the War on Syria is the whole reason for the Saudi Foreign Minister’s trip, and that the public explanation about preparing for the King’s visit is meant to be a plausibly acceptable rationale to deflect speculation from the true motivation for their meeting. More and more, it looks like Russia and Saudi Arabia are serious about reaching an arrangement on Syria, and that Riyadh might realistically be looking for a face-saving way to pull out of the fray.
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A bit further down the line, there’s also two major events that are supposed to take place which deserve to be spoken upon in brief:
Erdogan might visit Moscow in November to discuss the Balkan Stream pipeline (the subject of which was the one of the main themes of the author’s last article ), which would bring Syria’s main international protagonist (Putin) together with its main antagonist (Erdogan). It’s still far in the future and a lot will obviously transpire before then, but going along the lines of the Saudis’ public excuse for their Foreign Minister’s forthcoming visit to Moscow next week, such major events do require quite a lot of preparation, and it can be taken as a given that Russian and Turkish diplomats are in close contact with another about this and other affairs of mutual interest (most relevantly, Syria).
Accordingly, just as is the case with the Russian-Saudi diplomatic meeting discussed above, high-level diplomats on both sides can meet each other under the public auspices of ‘preparing for the big visit’ in order to talk about more pressing concerns such as Syria. Lastly, the author encourages the reader to check out his piece about Erdogan (hyperlinked in the last citation) to learn more about the possibility (however distant at this moment) for Turkey to cut deal with Russia over Syria in exchange for advantageous energy pricing and other sorts of benefits.
In a deeper vein than Putin’s meeting with Erdogan, the Russian President and Saudi King are expected to make visits to one another’s country by the end of the year. As has been discussed, this provides plenty of diplomatic cover for officials to discuss affairs beyond the scope of the prepared visits, such as Syria, but given how rapidly Russian-Saudi relations have accelerated in the past couple of months (for example, Saudi Arabia announced in July that it would invest up to $10 billion into the Russian economy), a major announcement could also be made at the time of either leader’s visit to the other.
Keeping with the theme of this article, and looking at what seems most likely at the moment, it could be that both sides formally announce their collaborative efforts in supporting Syria’s War on Terror. It might sound incredulous at this moment to consider Saudi Arabia as an anti-terrorist crusader, but keeping in mind how far Russian-Saudi relations have progressed in so short of a timeframe, as well as how ISIL has proven itself to be an American tool for dissolving the Saudi Kingdom (or at the very least, exerting enormous pressure on it to accede to all future American demands), it’s not unfeasible that the Saudis would eventually turn against their spawn and help the Russian-proposed international coalition defeat them in Syria.
The Fail-Safe Suggestion
Thus far, it seems that Russia’s grand strategic vision is for a UN-approved and inclusive (in that it includes the Syrian Arab Army, unlike the current and ineffective American format) anti-ISIL coalition to take the helm in leading the fight against terrorism in the region, and that a joint Russian-Iranian diplomatic proposal can be applied in parallel to bring about an inter-Syrian reconciliation. In the event that neither of them succeeds and in order to preempt what might be the US and Turkey’s final and horrific hurrah in bringing about regime change in Syria, Russia can always resort to the fail-safe measure of embedding its active Syrian-based military advisors into the Syrian Arab Army’s frontline positions.
There was talk this week that Russia might be prepared to send its Airborne Troops to Syria if the decision is made, but that was quickly brushed aside by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who firmly declared that “this possibility is not on (the) discussion agenda at all”. Nonetheless, the Syrians are actively exploring ways in which Russia can be of further assistance to their armed forces in the latest bout of their over four-year-long anti-terrorist campaign, since three senior military officials arrived in Moscow on Monday to do just that . The timing is of course no coincidence, as it occurs during the escalation of the US and Turkey’s War on Syria and the ongoing crisis over what they’ll do next, so one must wonder exactly what kind of “exchanges in experience in the fight against terrorism” they were particularly looking for at this critical moment of time.
It can be inferred that the visit likely had something to do with the Syrians seeking a strategic consultation over how to counter the US’ latest “Division 30” ploy, whereby a small group of elite proxy units were deployed to the country from Turkey under the protective cover of American airstrikes. On the same day that the Syrian military representatives arrived in Moscow, the news came out (likely known at least shortly beforehand by Russia via their world-famous intelligence-gathering network) that Obama had authorized the Pentagon to bomb any entity fighting against this group, including the Syrian Arab Army if such a clash occurs. Of course, this provocation could lead to a split-second escalation of the War on Syria and the formal American bombing of all Syrian military and government installations in as rapid of a regime change fashion as they moved in Libya, so it’s definitely taken into serious consideration by Moscow, and strategic attempts at deterring this dire scenario were most assuredly thrown about during the meeting.
If Russia is absolutely serious about removing the potential for the US to use a Syrian Arab Army attack on “Division 30” as the escalation trigger for ushering in their pre-planned full-scale regime change operation, then it could take the brave and resolute step of positioning its Syrian-based military advisors on the anti-terrorist frontline alongside the Syrian Arab Army. This decision could realistically be communicated to the US via formal/informal intelligence and diplomatic channels so that Washington could be aware of the unspeakable consequences of striking back at the Syrians as they respond to “Division 30’s” provocations. While a seemingly risky suggestion to some, it is a proven fact that the US military has never directly targeted a Russian serviceman, choosing instead to rely on its proxies for such a grisly task (be it the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan or terrorists in Chechnya ). The reason for this is clear – a direct attack by the US on a Russian military unit is a flagrant cause for war, and even under the currently tense conditions, there is no way that the US would make such an unthinkable move. That being said, if Russia deployed its in-country military advisors to the field alongside the Syrians as they combatted “Division 30”, they’d call Obama’s bluff and deter a Pentagon reprisal attack, which would give Syria free reign to mop up the group’s members without chancing that the US would use the opportunity to roll out its formal regime change offensive.
The situation in Syria has become extremely dire as of the past few weeks, with the US and Turkey threatening what appears to be their last-ditch effort at forcing regime change on the country. Russia is strictly opposed to this plot, and accordingly, it’s been doing whatever it reasonably can on the diplomatic front to prevent this from happening. Building upon its recent inroads in relations with Riyadh, Moscow has taken to courting the Kingdom in a bid to get it to pull out of the anti-government game and accept its inevitable loss. Likewise, Russia has also sought to simultaneously strengthen its relationship with Iran so that both of Syria’s primary allies can present a united proposal aimed at solving the country’s domestic woes. Bridging everything together, Russia envisions that its ambitious anti-ISIL coalition proposal could form the basis of a realistic alternative to the US’ failed (and false-fronted) multilateral effort at fighting the terrorist group, which could take pressure off of the Syrian government and allow it to more assertively liberate its sovereign territory without fear of that said coalition one day being used against it.
As constructive as Russia’s proposals are, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be fully successful, which is why Moscow must realize the one fail-safe measure that it can employ in order to stop the US and Turkey from escalating their War on Syria to all-out and conventional regime change proportions. Since the US has threatened to bomb any entity that fights against its elite “Division 30” proxy, including the Syrian Arab Army, it’s entirely possible that such an on-the-ground clash could be used to set off the final fireworks for the Pentagon’s campaign in the country, hence why this dangerous scenario must be avoided at all costs. It’s unrealistic to think that Syria would allow the US’ private army to march from the Turkish border all the way to Damascus without being opposed, so after a certain period of time, the two sides will inevitably cross swords, which could then open up the Pandora’s Box of US-led military pandemonium. However, if Russia makes the hard (but strategically necessary) decision to order its in-country military advisors to position themselves alongside the Syrian Arab Army’s anti-terrorist front line, then it can prevent the US from bombing its Syrian equivalent as it pounds back against its proxy, which would foil its escalatory regime change plans and save the country from a Libyan-esque fate.