Will Russia's Plan B for Syria work?

Tired of Turkey's intransigence, Moscow is working on a proposal involving the Assad regime, Iran and Israel

This handout picture released by the Syrian Presidency Facebook page on December 7, 2020, shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivering a speech, flanked by Minister of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) Mohammad Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed (L), during the periodic meeting held by the Ministry of Endowments at Al-Othman Mosque in the .   - XGTY / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Syrian Presidency Facebook page " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Could there be a Russian-sponsored peace agreement in the Middle East? It is not impossible.

Moscow has seemingly offered to broker a deal on behalf of Syria, its ally in the region, that could help the latter resolve some of the outstanding issues it has with neighbouring Israel. One such issue is Iran's military presence inside Syria, which has helped to safeguard the Assad regime in Damascus against disparate opposition forces, but which Israel sees as a threat to its own security.

Moscow is seeking to use the stalemate in war-torn Syria to consolidate its influence over the country after the Astana Process – which brings together Russia, Turkey and Iran with the express purpose of resolving the Syrian conflict – reached a dead end. The primary reason for the impasse is the souring of relations between Moscow and Ankara. And now the proposed deal could end up isolating Turkey and reducing Iran's military presence in Syria, in a way that would not only assuage an insecure Israel but also help to maintain Russia's hold in that part of the region. This deal, however, will require keeping Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in power.

TOPSHOT - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) leave after a press conference following a trilateral meeting on Syria, in Ankara on September 16, 2019.  / AFP / Adem ALTAN
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani have not been able to sustain the Astana Process. AFP

During his visit to Moscow this week, Syria's new Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, that Mr Al Assad wants to speed up the process of stabilising Syria following nine years of conflict. At the moment, it seems impossible for the regime and its backers to reach a deal with Turkey over the fate of Idlib, a region in Syria's north-west that is controlled by rebels mostly backed by Ankara – and Moscow and Damascus seem to be acknowledging this fact. This, then, leaves the Astana Process in tatters, thereby paving the way for new ideas – such as the one proposed in Moscow.

Mr Mekdad’s visit has made one thing clear: the Assad regime is determined to remain in power, no matter Syria’s dire circumstances. Mr Al Assad remains convinced that his regime is the cornerstone of Syria’s political future, regardless of local and international pressure, but he is reaching out to his enemies. He is willing to meet with the country’s opposition groups in Geneva, where talks have been ongoing, but is not interested in a power-sharing agreement with them. He is likely to accept some structural changes that could mean having a more independent parliament, but only so long as he remains in power.

Mr Al Assad also hopes that, by signalling his desire to make concessions with opposition groups and Israel, Moscow would be able to urge the Arab world to soften its stance towards his regime.

It may be open to Moscow’s proposal of drawing down Iran’s military presence in Syria. Mr Mekdad has, nonetheless, ascertained to his hosts that Syria-Iran co-operation would continue “because Iran has become a real and steady partner” – although not at the expense of Syria-Russia relations. In other words, the Assad regime intends to maintain good relations with Iran but consult Russia on all the key issues, including Tehran's presence in its backyard.

epa08889947 A handout photo made available by the press service of the  Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry shows Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (R) arriving to attend a signing ceremony after their talks in Moscow, Russia, 17 December 2020. Syrian Foreign Minister is on a working visit to Moscow.  EPA/RUSSIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY / HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT / HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, hosted his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad earlier in the week. EPA

That may not come as a huge surprise. However, it is instructive not only that Russia wants Syria to talk to Israel, a mortal enemy of Damascus, but also that it believes the Iranian regime should, in one way or the other, be part of that deal. Moscow fully understands the extent of Tehran’s influence in Syria and the organic relationship between the two regimes.

At the same time, Moscow has significant leverage over Tehran – whether it is regarding the arms deal negotiations or the fate of the contentious 2015 nuclear agreement – and is willing to use that leverage.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – or JCPOA – which the US and other global powers, including Russia, signed with Iran five years ago, hangs in the balance. US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of it in 2018 but his soon-to-be successor, Joe Biden, seems determined to return to it. This could have a bearing on Iran's continued role in Syria.

However, experts I recently spoke to remain divided over how the US should deal with Iran after Mr Biden is sworn in on January 20.

For instance, Ellie Geranmayeh, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, would like to see the incoming administration focus on resolving the nuclear deal before pivoting to other issues, such as Iran’s expansionist agenda in the region as well as its ballistic missile programme. On the other hand, Lina Khatib, from Chatham House, has argued for a push to resolve the issues around the missile programme and Tehran's military adventurism in the region as a pre-condition for talks on the JCPOA.

However, Karen Young, from the American Enterprise Institute, has predicted that the first six months of a Biden administration “are not necessarily aligned for good diplomacy”, given that Iran will be holding its presidential election in June, the outcome of which could well decide its foreign policy priorities.

Were progress not to be made on the JCPOA front, Russia’s sponsorship of a deal involving Syria, Israel and Iran would amount to a significant development.

Furthermore, it will be entirely in line with the messages coming out of Moscow that speak to a desire on Russia’s part to follow a path of “moderation” and a determination to play a constructive role in the world, including in the Middle East.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National