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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Insight: Cautious hope for change with constitution talks

Lavrov also met with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem. [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 September, 2020

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A meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad could point to fundamental changes in the war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Syria last week has been interpreted as another turning point in Moscow-Damascus relations that could have fundamental implications for Bashar Al-Assad's rule, analysts have said.

Post-meeting comments made by the Russian delegation -  
headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov - appeared in conjunction with the Syrian regime's own uncompromising stance towards the opposition.

Behind the scenes it is clear that there are new external pressures on Assad amid the deteriorating economic and security situation in the country.

Back in 2012, when Lavrov last visited Damascus, much of Syria was outside regime control while Bashar Al-Assad's international pariah status had been affirmed.

Eight years on and the situation for Assad is still as bleak with even tougher US sanctions in place, northern Syria remaining in rebel or Kurdish hands, and the coronavirus sweeping through the country.

The regime framed Lavrov and Borisov's visit as a golden opportunity for new Russian investment to help the crumbling Syrian war economy that has been hit by a currency crisis, the coronavirus epidemic, and the Caesar Act sanctions.

Stalemate

Lavrov's visit is unlikely to see a Russian bail out, which Damascus so desperately needs. Instead, it could see Moscow increasing pressure on Assad to pursue a political process that might wind down the war and lead to conditions needed for reconstruction money to enter Syria.

"Russian officials and delegations regularly visit Damascus, so part of this visit is just another one of the usual periodic visits," Dima Moussa, a Syrian opposition politician and member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, told The New Arab.

"Lavrov's visit might be related to the progress in the political process in light of the latest developments - and with Russia as one of the Astana guarantors - and is indicative of the phase we are witnessing in which the political track is gaining more grounds and the military operations are on the decline."

Since 2015, Russia has been at the forefront of the Syrian regime's brutal military campaign against opposition areas but it has also been involved in dialogue through the Astana process with Assad ally Iran and rebel-backer Turkey.

Russia is keen to ensure that the process stays alive and succeeds
- Dima Moussa

The Astana process helped these competing powers avoid direct confrontation in Syria, but it was never likely to achieve a political solution to end the war or win the approval of countries needed for reconstruction, such as the US, UK or Germany.

Russia has now thrown its weight behind the UN supported Syrian Constitutional Committee, which involves members of the regime, opposition, and civil society and viewed as perhaps the best solution on offer to ending the war.

Past meetings have broken down after the Syrian opposition accused the regime officials of trying to scupper talks by issuing unreasonable demands and preconditions.

Undoubtedly, a power sharing agreement, which the process aims to achieve, will be unpalatable to Assad but UN Syria envoy Geir Pederson said the last round of talks in Geneva were a "step in the right direction" and appeared more upbeat about their future.

This might indicate that Moscow is losing patience with Assad and turning the pressure on the president to make a success of the talks - at least for now.

"Russia is keen to ensure that the process stays alive and succeeds… [so they] can point to it as one of the successes of their work. I believe this has more to do with showing the importance of their role in advancing the political process," said Moussa.

Best chance for change

After his meeting with Assad, Lavrov said there was "no timetable" for amending the constitution, while the regime wants any changes postponed until after presidential elections next year.

"The approach of the other side to the political talks has not changed a lot, but we expect there to be more engagement as the political track gains more momentum as necessitated by the changing situation on the ground and the general regional and international situation," Moussa said.

Many in the opposition see the constitutional committee track as the best avenue for ending the war and believe it could open the door to comprehensive political changes inside Syria.

Moscow has direct control over entire militias and structures within government forces
- Ruslan Trad

"We continue to work on advancing the political process and pushing toward the comprehensive political solution through the full implementation of UNSCR 2254, as the only way out of this crisis for Syria and the Syrian people," said Moussa.

"This has never been affected by how the other side behaves, but it does prolong the process, and with it Syrians' suffering, which we are putting our utmost efforts forth to find ways to put an end to it."

Ruslan Trad, co-founder of De Re Militari and co-author of Russian Invisible Armies, said that the arrival of Lavrov in Damascus for the first time in eight years is a sign of changing priorities for Moscow in Syria.

Lavrov's visit to Damascus sent an important message, he said: Assad must find solutions to the mounting security and economic problems in Syria and one of these options is through negotiations with the opposition.

"It is a signal that Russia wants to end its military involvement in Syria sooner by starting a political process and negotiations," Trad told The New Arab.

New concerns

Since its intervention in the war five-years-ago, Russia has managed to turn the tide in the regime's favour and increased its influence in Damascus at relatively little cost, when compared to Assad's other international ally, Iran.

It has established military bases and secured economic interests in Syria, while Assad is almost completely reliant on Moscow's patronage, Trad said.

"Assad can negotiate investment only publicly. In fact, Russian companies are among the main participants in the development of gas fields, oil and phosphates," he said.

"Moscow has direct control over entire militias and structures within government forces, which means that the Syrian government is, more or less, feudally dependent on its patron in the Kremlin."

Moscow does not need to drop support for Assad because he is essentially in their pocket and the Russian military command can control government policy accordingly, Trad said.

"Decisions are being made in Hmeimim (Russia's airbase in Latakia) not in Damascus. There are Russian patrols on the streets, phosphate is being developed by Russian companies, Russian banks are lending in government-held districts, and entire areas are fed by Russian supplies," he said.

"Moscow has built a stable structure under the façade of the Assad regime. Bashar Al-Assad will be held in power as long as is convenient, and for now there is no need for the Kremlin to act as it will slow the process of ending Russia's military involvement in Syria."

Now Moscow has established military bases and political influence in Syria, President Vladimir Putin will make an orderly withdrawal of the bulk of Russian forces a priority given the unpopularity of the war at home and problems Moscow faces in Europe.

"The most important thing for Russia right now is to secure its interests in Syria so that it can address the problems at home," Trad said, mentioning growing political opposition, pressure from NATO, and problems in neighbouring Belarus as concerns for the Kremlin.

"To secure its position in Syria, Russia needs to stabilise Assad, and that means a comfortable administration in Damascus. Moscow needs a political process to end the war… but one that serves the interests of the Kremlin.

"The drafting a new constitution is part of these efforts, but the lack of an end to the conflict really worries Moscow."

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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