By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai
Syrian peace talks have taken off in the Black Sea resort of Sochi: around 1400 Syrian representatives from government and opposition groups – all with different views, political agendas and goals – have agreed on 12 principles and strategic resolutions, to the intense dislike of the US and Israel. Russia – theoretically – marked the end of much speculation about the partition of Syria and declared “silent war” on Israel, and on the US and Turkey’s forces, unlawfully present on Syrian territory. In Sochi the principle of the integrity of Syria as a whole sovereign state has been adopted unanimously.
This symbolic gathering is significant – despite low expectations at the start – and important achievements were registered, starting with Sochi enjoying an international dimension thanks to the United Nations representative’s presence (UN Special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura) and the presence of Syrian groups supported by Turkey and Egypt, all meeting alongside the government officials. Moreover, it was agreed that the Syrian constitution would be revised and discussed by 150-member constitutional committee drawn from the government and opposition experts. It is true that this committee doesn’t have the power to change the constitution but it can offer suggestions: a good start to bring to the Geneva negotiating table later this year. This clearly means the Syrians will have to decide their own future despite foreign influence and outside interventions.
The Syrian Riyad-financed delegation was not present but not missed. The “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) leadership – under the protection of the US forces in northern Syria –also declined to attend the Sochi meeting: the pro-US Kurds feel “betrayed” by Russia for not resisting the Turkish-NATO member (Turkish military operation code name “Olive Branch”) whose forces are trying to invade the Kurdish enclave bordering the city of Afrin. Two weeks ago, the YPG leadership turned down an offer by Russia and Damascus to deliver the city to the government forces (they claim to be part of Syria) because they want to keep holding on to the administration of the city. Despite the Russian clear warning to the Kurds about the seriousness of Turkish intentions, the YPG would allow only enough Syrian Army forces to act as border guards (facing the Turkish border), but would not deliver the city to central government forces.
The meeting in Sochi was not organised as a substitute for the Geneva peace talks: on the contrary, it endorsed the road map adopted in 2012, and agreed on a UN supervised election when Syria will be liberated. Sochi is essentially a Russian manifestation of its dominating power in Syria and its capability, as a superpower, to play a peaceful role when the guns are not needed. Russia is elbowing the US in the international arena, putting a definite end to the unilateral American role in the Middle East.
The US establishment manifested its anger against Russia, particularly for the dominating Russian military presence, for its political moves in Syria, and its presence on the international platform- and more. Russia is hitting the US’s best ally in the Middle East, Israel, when the Sochi gathering agrees on the liberation of the occupied Golan Heights on the borders with Israel. Russia is lobbying to bring back Syrian land to its owners while Donald Trump is giving Jerusalem to Israel. Moreover, the US declared a series of sanctions against most of the Russian military and political leadership, including the Prime Minister Medvedev. Vladimir Putin, miraculously excluded from Trump’s list of sanctions, did not wait long before answering his American counterpart: “the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on”.
Sochi also developed a consensus in favour of the multi-ethnic nature of the future democratic Syrian state. That means no extremism or religious groups have a place in the future government of Syria. And most importantly, the 1,400 persons agreed to decide their fate through ballot and select their President by democratic election. This is exactly what the actual Syrian government was advocating. It took the Syrians seven years of war to realise it.
The US isolated itself from Sochi but not from Syria because it has a military presence in north-east Syria (al-Hasaka, Deir-ezzour, Manbij) and can still play many cards. It has also full control over a pocket in the same area, on the Syrian-Iraqi borders, where a few thousand ISIS militants are still hanging around. It has another isolated pocket in al-Tanaf, directly on the Syrian-Iraq border, offering military training to (what its establishment is claiming) “tens of thousands of Syrian rebels” as the war slows down and events are take some distance from general war in Syria. The US is using the Kurds so that they protect their forces as long as they remain in Syria.
Russia is not punishing the Kurds but respecting their choice and giving them the possibility to try and to test the flavour of what it means to align themselves with the US, asking for an alliance that Washington gives to no one in the Middle East except to Israel. The US establishment has always been honest and straightforward on this point: we don’t have allies and friends, just common interests. It is unclear why the Kurds still persist in wanting to change US principles of alliance, and why they would accept to become the US’s wood to be burned in Syria. Russia can only wait to collect the Kurds when they wake up from their unrealistic dream and remain as an integral party of Syria.
The US (and its allies) have lost the war, and yet they are in Syria to stay. On the other hand, the whole anti-US camp is in Syria to fight the US forces and push them to leave. That could happen when the war in Syria will finally end- the US will be left in Syria like a sore thumb. On the other hand, it will not be an easy task to remove Turkey from Syria. The Kurds did not only bring the US to the Levant but offered huge leverage for Turkey to stay and annex part of Syria when the YPG refused the central government’s authority over Afrin and al-Hasaka.
Neither Sochi nor Geneva will remove the US or Turkey from Syria. In the meantime, the jihadists and extremists are happy for both the US and Turkey to stay because all the players, instead of dedicating their full attention to defeating terrorism, are able to carry on hitting each other- they have found an alibi to keep on “playing” on Syrian territory.