By Maria Dubovikova *
The surprise visit of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Sochi this week, and his meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a true turning point in the Syrian conflict. It preceded a summit of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish leaders in the Black Sea resort on Wednesday, a meeting in Riyadh of the Syrian opposition and the resumption of the Geneva peace talks before the end of the month, and the planned Syrian People’s Congress for national reconciliation in Russia early in December.
The warm and cordial welcome extended to the Syrian president by Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials — mainly generals led by the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, who were taking part in defense-related talks — sends strong signals that, for Russia, Assad is not only part of the solution for Syria, but also a legitimate leader who the Kremlin expects to stay in power for some years.
After the meeting, Putin had phone conversations with the leaders of Middle Eastern countries and US President Donald Trump. It is clear that Putin is not going to lose the lead in Syria, and has a precise strategy in his head. Moscow insists on accepting Assad as leader until presidential elections are held, and he has the right to nominate himself for two terms under the draft constitution.
Assad’s visit took place two days before a meeting in Sochi between Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani. The Putin-Assad meeting aimed to assure other parties concerned in the Syrian conflict that Russia, Iran and Turkey are agreed on a political settlement and the transition of power based on what the Syrians determine for their future government; in his meetings with Erdogan and Rouhani, Putin speaks on behalf of Russia and Syria at the same time.
Riad Hijab, head of Syria’s main opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), resigned on Monday before a conference in Saudi Arabia this week aimed at unifying the groups opposed to Assad. He gave no reason, but there is concern in the HNC over growing international pressure to force them to accept that Assad will remain in power.
A whole new phase has started, with the Syrian government recovering control of its borders after the demise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Last month, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said 92 percent of Syrian territory was free from Daesh control. Almost a year after the launch of the Astana talks, agreement was reached to set up de-escalation zones in Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta and southwestern Syria.
With the Syrian army regaining control of more than 85 per cent of the country, and a plan to expand the southern de-escalation zone to the Jordanian and Israeli borders, the war in Syria is almost over.
The surprises keep coming in Syria, one after the other. They reflect radical changes in the local, regional and international dynamics that have long governed the conflict. After the Syrian army’s recovery of the Daesh-held town of Abu Kamal in the east, it has now taken control of many areas in the south, bordering Jordan, for the first time in five years, during which the border was closed.
The armed opposition to Assad is in complete disarray, and the external opposition are exerting their efforts to unify their stands for the coming conferences in Sochi and Geneva. Russia regards the de-escalation zones as a turning point in resolving the crisis by separating the armed opposition from terrorist factions.
Jordan’s central geographic location in the heart of the Middle East determines its foreign policy, and it is an important partner for both the West and Russia, as well as other countries. I believe Jordan is doing its best to maintain good relationships with all countries, especially those with high stakes in the Middle East; regional security is important to it, but Jordan also seeks to balance relations in line with its own national interests.
The de-escalation zones, which have been so successful in reducing violence, were proposed by Jordan in March and April this year, to pave the way for a ceasefire. Jordanian security officials and military officers had secret meetings in northern Jordan with their American, Russian and Syrian counterparts to establish an operations center to monitor and control the de-escalation zones. The plan for the zones was agreed after a thorough discussion at the regional level — Jordan, Israel and Syria — along with Russia and the US. Russia was not accepted in the beginning, but Jordan insisted on including Russians because they are key players in the peace process and the guarantors of a truce and a political settlement.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme
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