BY YEZID SAYIGH, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 30 March 2021
Russia, Turkey, and Qatar have presented a trilateral initiative on Syria, but it’s who is included that matters more.
On March 11, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, and Qatar announced the launch of “a new trilateral consultation process” to help achieve “a lasting political solution in Syria.” Their joint statement reiterated the standard principles on which there is an international consensus for ending the Syrian conflict. The parties added nothing that was explicitly new, whether in the form of political or operational modalities.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized that the three-party framework would complement rather than replace the Astana process launched in January 2017—or the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi and Syrian Constitutional Committee tracks that it later generated. On a path already strewn with diplomatic initiatives, many defunct and others on life support, what’s the purpose of yet another, especially one so short on specifics? And why now?
Parsing through the joint statement and the responses the three foreign ministers gave at their official press conference in the Qatari capital Doha sheds little light. They emphasized their collective commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity, the framework for a peaceful settlement provided by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communiqué of 2012. They also reasserted their support for combatting terrorism, the efforts of the constitutional committee and the special envoy of the UN secretary general to Syria, and working to increase humanitarian assistance, confront the Covid-19 pandemic, assist the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, and secure the release of detainees—especially women, children, and the elderly.
All this was entirely formulaic. The Astana troika—Russia, Turkey, and Iran—had renewed its own commitment to many of the same core principles just weeks earlier. The fact that the troika issued this renewal following a failed session of the constitutional committee—launched in January 2018 and composed of 150 representatives of the Syrian opposition, government, and civil society—further underlined the stagnation of international diplomacy.
So what does Russia want from the new joint platform? What does it offer that bilateral talks or routine diplomatic demarches do not? As in Cold War-era Kremlinology, much can be gleaned from who appeared in the official lineup and who was airbrushed out: with Iran in the Astana troika, it is Qatar’s inclusion in the trilateral initiative that is significant. And here, the likely Russian objective is to soften opposition to the Assad regime in the region and expand Gulf support for reinstating the Syrian government in the Arab League, building on recent calls by the United Arab Emirates to do just that.
Beyond reducing the political and diplomatic pariah status of the Assad regime, Russia’s principal objective is almost certainly to improve Syria’s access to external markets, needed commodities, and credit. This has been an important goal for the past two to three years, during which Russia launched calls for international funding for reconstruction and Syrian refugee repatriation. The rapid deterioration of conditions in regime-held areas and the precipitous slide in value of the Syrian pound has made the need for alleviation more urgent. However, Russia lacks the means to finance economic reconstruction and recovery and has failed to generate Western support for its initiatives. Indeed, there is no prospect of an easing of Western economic sanctions on the regime, as Lavrov complained when announcing the new initiative in Doha. It therefore makes eminent sense to take action in the Gulf, historically a major source of financial assistance and investment and a market for Syrian exports and labor. It is also there that an appetite for rehabilitating the Assad regime has been increasingly evident recently.
A Russian pivot to Qatar would have been pointless, even counterproductive, were it not for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the emirate and its rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last January 5. Even now, this reconciliation is more symbolic than substantive, while the United Arab Emirates’ and Saudi Arabia’s improved ties with Turkey are at best nascent. But bringing Qatar and Turkey, the only regional actors still overtly committed to the Syrian opposition, into an initiative intended to salvage the Assad regime exploits the window of opportunity and makes it easier to widen Gulf support for the latter’s political and economic rehabilitation. With a Syrian presidential election weeks away, Russia may also calculate that anything legitimizing Bashar al-Assad’s rule will provide a useful cover for improved ties with the Gulf.
Naturally, when it comes to GCC countries much hinges on if and how Iran fits in. Saudi Arabia is not opposed to restoring relations with the Syrian government, and has actively engaged with Russia on Syria, but it also wants Assad to downgrade relations with Iran in return. For its part, the Iranian Foreign Ministry welcomed the trilateral statement issued in Doha, describing it as “an initiative to help the Astana Process.” This is ironic, as that process appears to be in terminal decline. It proved ineffective in preempting the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria in October 2019 or the largescale confrontation in February 2020 between Turkish truce observers deployed in Syria’s Idlib Governorate and forces loyal to Assad, during which Russian aircraft partially supported the latter.
The Astana process has been reduced to the grindingly slow deliberations of the constitutional committee, which has convened face to face only five times since 2018. Reflecting this and the limitations of his role, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen reported to the Security Council on February 9 that neither “the constitutional track or any other” in the peace process “will really move forward” given the persistent absence of trust and political will to compromise.
But the faltering Astana process reveals much about the Russian approach and the thinking that probably underlies the new trilateral initiative. On the one hand, the initiative provides an additional diplomatic tool in Russia’s hands rather than representing a replacement for Astana. On the other, it is likely to go the same way: the Astana framework did not prevent regime forces from retaking three out of the four “deescalation zones” Astana created in January 2017. In much the same way, the Doha initiative will allow Russia and the Assad regime to pocket gains without actually delivering on genuine political change in Syria.
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