Putin is leading, but he may not have it all the way



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It is not the first time that Russia announces that it will withdraw its troops in Syria. President Vladimir Putin made the same announcement in March 2016, but it soon reversed. There is no doubt that the Russian leader wants to withdraw, but wants to maintain the military bases and the influence that his forces have gained. The calendar is undoubtedly dictated by the Russian elections scheduled for March 2018, no doubt an election that Putin has every intention of manipulating.
The question is, has Russia managed to do enough to reduce the forces in Syria? The struggle is not over and Russian influence in Syria is allied with its military force on the ground. Putin wants to reduce Russian military commitment, ideally through a political process in which he will act as master of ceremonies.
So Putin again had his diplomatic ushanka, as host of Bashar Assad, and then of Presidents Erdogan and Rouhani, all in Sochi. He has met Erdogan three times in November so far. Putin can also engender a process of Sochi, a meeting in the Russian bosom of the disparate Syrian actors, both loyal and opposition, but for the moment is at least waiting. The Russian leader is demonstrating his growing influence in the Middle East and on the world stage, largely at the expense of the USA. UU
Putin's actions have prompted supporters of the Syrian opposition to the action, as well as other actors who fear a process of Russian ownership. Saudi Arabia has coaxed the Syrian opposition into a single joint grouping that unifies the Riyadh and Moscow platforms under new leadership. The revised leadership of the Negotiations Committee (HNC) is much more credible and pragmatic.
Crucially, the HNC has stated that it will go to Geneva this week for the eighth round without preconditions, particularly about the immediate fate of Assad. One of the opposition supporters, President Erdogan, has also said he would not rule out a meeting with Assad.
It was not only the opposition that had to act together. The UN special envoy, Staffan De Mistura, rushed to Riyadh to help boost a unique opposition platform and to push forward the Geneva process he oversees. The EU also fears that a Sochi process will replace Geneva. His statement was clear: "The EU reaffirms the primacy of the Geneva process led by the UN".

Saudi Arabia has coaxed the Syrian opposition into a single joint grouping that unifies the Riyadh and Moscow platforms under new leadership.

Chris Doyle

Where does this leave the regime? So far, Assad could treat Geneva as a game, counting on opposition divisions and unrealistic demands that his main sponsors, Russia and Iran, would never force him to accept. Has this changed? The regime has been stripped of its excuses for not negotiating as it faces a united platform that has not made the elimination of the president a precondition for any transition process. Ideally, Assad would prefer not to have any process, especially one in which he finally has to make concessions. This may explain why the regime's position on Monday was not to attend.
The personal position of Assad is much weaker than that of some in the West, especially the followers of the "best devil you know", they realize. When Assad was summoned to Sochi, he was like a servant who came to listen to the instructions of his teacher. Putin took Assad to a meeting of Russian generals without any member of his entourage to accompany him. The message was clear. It was not a meeting of equals.
Putin has always seen Assad as disposable, barely impressed with the talents of the Syrian leader. His red line was that it should be him, not the United States or any other state, who determines who leads his "client" state. The difference 12 months ago is that Putin has a US president apparently more than willing to consent to this and whose administration has admitted that Assad's departure is no longer his main objective.
But Putin does not have everything in his way either. It has not been able to marginalize Iran, and the Syrian regime has successfully played the two powers against each other. Russia can not pay for the Syrian reconstruction that it knows is necessary for any stabilization. The financial muscle of the EU will be necessary. China may be a player in a reconstruction process, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also clear that he expected the Syrian regime to make concessions: "China hopes that the Syrian side can seize the opportunity, show flexibility and promote dialogue and negotiation to achieve substantive results. "
For the time being, Putin can go along with a revived Geneva process, with a Sochi process to appeal if this does not work. It has been delayed, it seems February. The focus is on future elections and drafting a new constitution, with the likelihood that Assad will remain in power at least until they can take place. Preparations for elections that are even credible internationally will require between 18 and 24 months.
Putin has certainly energized diplomatic action on Syria. Skeptics will present powerful arguments about the major unresolved issues, which include the ongoing fighting on the ground, the future of Idlib and the tensions over Kurdish aspirations that Turkey is determined to thwart. But, in spite of all that, there is a new opening to end this endless conflict, which could be successful if all those involved started working for the future of Syria and the Syrians and not their narrow interests.

Chris Doyle is director of the Council for the Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), based in London. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with first-clbad honors in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Exeter. Twitter: @Doylech

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