Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Diplomatic Channels

Dialogue taking place behind the scenes now will shape Syria’s civil war

Kim Sengupta                   Independent/UK                     3 February 2014

As Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, ranted at the start of the Geneva peace talks, repeatedly shouting down UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s protestations that he was way over the allocated time, another person on the panel could be seen tapping his wristwatch. The man with the expression of exasperation on his face was Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, the power that has kept Bashar al-Assad’s regime from collapse.
A few days later Mr Lavrov was stating that a humanitarian aid convoy, blocked by the regime, should be allowed in for the people trapped in Homs. A few days after that came the news that the head of the Syrian opposition has been invited to Moscow for talks. Ahmad Jarba, in turn, was eager to assure Russia that the “historic” ties between the two countries will continue long after Mr Assad has gone.
As the talks in Geneva adjourned last week there are readjustments, small but important, in the international realpolitik behind the Syrian civil war. Calculations are being made as the conflict enters its third year about gains and losses, what can be salvaged by who after the bloodshed ends.  The UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was entirely justified in saying the fact that the two sides turned up to talk was itself a huge achievement. That they did so sitting in the same room without trying to brain each other. Neither side stormed off.  There has not been, of course, a sudden outbreak of amity. They were there because of heavy pressure from their foreign backers.
American and British diplomats acknowledge that Geneva II would not have taken place, and President Assad would not have given up his chemical arsenal, had it not been for the Russians. The opposition, too, now recognises the advantage of cultivating the Kremlin. Mr Jarba holds: “our relations will be maintained with Russia.” This will include, he added, Moscow keeping its only Mediterranean port of Tartus.
The outside backers of the two sides are also talking to each other. Perhaps the most significant is the rapprochement with Turkey. As guests of the Indonesian government in the Bali Democracy Forum of international leaders, in November 2012, I watched as Mr Erdogan refused even to look at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he lashed the Assad regime and its backers over the conflict.

Last week Mr Erdogan, in his visit to Iran, spoke effusively about his hosts. Although the primary focus was economic, Syria was also under discussion. Afterwards, the Turkish Prime Minister stressed his foreign ministry will liaise with its Tehran counterparts; the Iranian government had expressed deep concern, he said, about extremists going into Syria through Turkey.  Security agencies have now begun to make arrests. The dialogues taking place behind the scenes now will shape the alliances being formed over Syria’s second civil war.            [Abridged]

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