The state of play in the Syria talks (round 58692)

November 13, 2015
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) listen while UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) speaks during a news conference at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, October 30, 2015. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said on Friday he hoped progress could be made at international talks in Vienna aimed at finding a political solution to Syria's four-year-old civil war but it would be very difficult. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool - RTX1U17Z

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Secretary of State John Kerry (R) listen as UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (C) speaks during a news conference at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool

RUSSIA: The recent diplomatic surge to forge a settlement to the conflict in Syria was intentionally driven by Russia to complement its military intervention in the country. Moscow’s air campaign will likely intensify if jihadists prove to be responsible for the recent downing of a Russian commercial airliner over Egypt, which killed all 224 people on board. It could also, however, add fuel to the diplomatic effort and underscore the need for a negotiated solution.

President Vladimir Putin seeks to change the balance of power on the ground in Syria to ensure the Assad regime’s survival and tilt the scales at the negotiating table. He aims to restore Russian influence in the Middle East, which diminished after the fall of the Soviet Union. He wants to use his new-found leverage to reconfigure the region’s broader geopolitical landscape.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the exhibition "Orthodox Russia. My History. From Great Turmoils to Great Victory" on National Unity Day in Moscow, Russia November 4, 2015. Russia marks National Unity Day on November 4 to celebrate the defeat of Polish invaders in 1612. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION WILL BE PROVIDED SEPARATELY. - RTX1URYJ

Russian President Vladimir Putin on National Unity Day in Moscow, November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

In addition, Russia is not bound to Iran in the Middle East. Though their interests may converge on Syria and other fronts, Russia is also seeking better bilateral relations with other regional powers, including Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Putin, however, is aware of Russia’s limits: He aims to make Moscow a key player in the region, not the key player. By securing Russian interests and prestige abroad, Putin would strengthen his support at home and ensure his legacy.

IRAN: After completion of the historic July 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran’s presence at the multilateral Syria talks in Vienna marks another important step in its reintegration into the international system after years of diplomatic isolation. For Tehran, the strategic stakes in Syria are enormous. The country sits at the epicenter of Iran’s regional arc of influence, which extends from Iraq through Syria into Lebanon, with its ally Hezbollah.

Iran remains fully engaged and committed to the survival of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has an estimated 2,000 troops in Syria, which serve as the vanguard in managing forces supporting Assad. With the support of Russian airpower, Tehran is seeking to maximize territorial gains and strengthen its negotiating position. Iran could benefit enormously if a deal is reached on Syria. Its diplomatic standing would improve and its interests would be secured, while unleashing new opportunities and avoiding a quagmire on the ground.

UNITED STATES: Throughout the Syrian conflict, Washington has operated in reactive mode. President Barack Obama’s refusal to take decisive action in Syria has left a dangerous void, which was often filled by others, including Islamic State. Russia’s military intervention upended whatever remains of U.S. strategy in Syria — if any existed. Despite Obama’s campaign promises to extract American forces from Mideast conflicts, his successor will likely inherit U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, with the president’s deployment of Special Operations forces to Kurdish-controlled areas.

Obama often engages in rhetorical gymnastics to downplay U.S. involvement in the region. But the bottom line is that U.S. boots are on the ground but not on the front lines. Though the U.S. troop presence in Syria was announced as limited to approximately 50 advisers for now, direct engagement is not excluded if deemed necessary. The recent death of an American soldier during a rescue mission in Iraq is one example of what can happen here. Additional casualties are possible in future anti-Islamic State operations. After all, the current Sinjar offensive in northern Iraq led by Kurdish pesh merga and U.S. airpower also includes the support of American advisers on the ground.

EUROPE: Europe has been struggling to maintain unity in response to the migration and economic crises. The Syrian conflict and its role in triggering the migratory waves present the European Union with a near-existential crisis. The first half of 2015 was consumed by the taming of a political upstart, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The migration crisis was simultaneously gaining speed. When Tsipras finally caved to EU requirements in mid-July, thousands of refugees were already fleeing to European shores. More than one million migrants are expected to arrive in Europe by the end of 2015. Though not all are from Syria, the conflict there bears primary responsibility.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel sits before the start of a parliamentary investigation committee hearing on RWE's Biblis nuclear power plant shutdown, at the Chancellery in Berlin, November 6, 2015. The plant was ordered to shut down in March 2011 after the Fukushima disaster. REUTERS/Bernd von Jutrczenka/Pool - RTX1V0XI

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin, November 6, 2015. REUTERS/Bernd von Jutrczenka/Pool

The migration crisis could even threaten the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. No other European leader has matched her skills in maintaining European unity in times of crisis. Without Merkel, Europe risks floating adrift. This underscores Europe’s need to quell the Syrian conflict immediately to stem the current migration flow.

SAUDI ARABIA: Despite profound reluctance, geopolitical realities dictated that Saudi Arabia had to sit at the negotiating table in Vienna with its arch-enemy Iran. The Saudis are committed to thwarting Iran’s regional expansion. Syria remains a focal point in the broader struggle that includes Iraq, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula and particularly the conflict in Yemen. Despite critical diplomatic backing for Saudi Arabia by the Gulf States and other key Arab allies, U.S. support remains indispensable. Continuing Saudi frustration with the Obama administration further complicates the kingdom’s pursuit of its agenda. The Saudis have no option but to participate in the multilateral talks. The regime must seek more constructive engagement with allies to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table. It must also temper its demands, particularly its insistence for Assad’s immediate departure.

TURKEY: Turkey’s key priorities all along have been the removal of Assad and preventing the formation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria. Yet, Turkey also desperately needs some form of ceasefire in Syria. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must demonstrate greater flexibility in negotiations. In addition, Turkey is overwhelmed by political polarization, social divisions, economic uncertainty and security threats on all fronts. It also has taken in more than 2 million Syrian refugees. Erdogan’s AK Party’s surprising election victory on Nov. 1 can only further entrench existing animosities. The only certainty is that Turkey remains more divided than ever and must defuse any additional external pressures, particularly from Syria.

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