With his new initiative to end the Syrian crisis, the Russian president is emerging as the region’s principal decision-maker
By Abdel Bari Atwan
Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly surprises us with political, diplomatic, and military achievements in the Middle East which affirm his leadership qualities and demonstrate that he has a clear strategy for addressing the region’s varied problems, above all the Syrian crisis. His military intervention in Syria proved decisive and succeeded in securing major achievements on the ground: cease-fires inmost parts of the country, the establishment of four de-escalation zones, and the launching of the Astana framework that brought leaders of the armed opposition factions together with representatives of the Syrian government.
Putin has now surprised us with yet another, no less important development. Invitations have been issued to more than 33 factions and political and tribal groups to take part in a comprehensive national dialogue at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on 18 November. The aim is to discuss and agree the broad outlines of a new Syrian constitution that will determine the main features and identity of the Syria of the future, consolidate coexistence and participation by the country’s various confessional and ethnic components, and lay the foundations for a new political system that institutes long-awaited reforms. The three main countries involved – Iran, Turkey, and Syria – have all unhesitatingly accepted and endorsed this step. This means that the most active and influential parties in the Syrian crisis have adopted the Russian roadmap and want it to succeed, and are also willing to remove any possible obstacles that stand in its path. Turkey, for example, has lifted its longstanding veto on any involvement by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It has always viewed this group as a ‘terrorist’ organization that menaces its borders and poses a threat to its security. But it expressed no objection to the YPG attending this all-Syria conference that aims to include representatives of all ethnic, religious and confessional groups without exception. The convening of this conference – which is due in three weeks’ time, after the seventh round of the Astana talks has been concluded – attests to the fact that a decisive military victory has been achieved on the ground in Syria and that the phase of political talks and national reconciliation has begun, which is a prerequisite for stability and reconstruction. The US-sponsored process of holding conferences under nominal UN auspices in Geneva has become redundant. It has been overtaken by events, abandoned by all the relevant players and supplanted by the Sochi conference.
In strategic terms, the war in Syria has been won by the state, with President Bashar al-Assad confidently in charge and nobody seriously demanding his removal any longer, under the protection of the Syrian army – which demonstrated a remarkable degree of steadfastness over the course of almost seven years. This could never have been done without Putin — his political acumen, his readiness to come quickly to the aid of his allies, his resilience when his own troops and commanders began being targeted, and his ability to establish strong and effective political and military alliances, and his refusal to be intimidated by the US and its armadas. His plans have – until now at least – proven to be precise and well thought-out . Putin has deservedly become the major decision-maker in the new Middle East that is emerging from the ruins of four decades of US domination, acting in consultation with allies who trust him and whom he trusts. Officials from neighbouring countries and various parts of the world are showing up in growing numbers in Damascus seeking to normalize relations with the regime. The seven years of civil war are giving way to a period of relative security and stability in which the state can – or at least should — address priorities that it had been forced to set aside: repairing and reforming its structures and attending to the basic needs of its citizens, above all social justice and democratic participation in government.