Deceptive Smiles Frame Deeply Tense Assad-Putin Meeting

The Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has flown to Sochi for a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and while both smiled politely for the cameras and congratulated each other on successfully waging a war against terrorism, the meeting was undoubtedly more tense than most if not all recent meetings between the two leaders, not least because several profound, but still entirely manageable disagreements have flared up between Russia and Syria in the last six months if not the last 12 months.

According to official reports from the office of the Russian President, the two leaders discussed Russia’s much vaunted political process designed to formally end the conflict in Syria. This is not to say that if such a process was ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ that all terrorism would suddenly end, or that the illegal US/PKK occupation of Syria would end and it certainly would not mean that the illegally Zionist occupied Golan Heights would be liberated, but it would mean that the UN’s special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura would likely rubber stamp a a constitutional agreement and accompanying documents saying that the conflict is “officially over”. Such a move could help to regularise the UN’s collective view on the Syrian government, no matter how much people like Nikki Haley or Hillary Clinton might object. This alone would be a major diplomatic victory for the winning side in the conflict.

Such a scenario would moreover represent a clear geopolitical victory for Russia which was able to help Syria win the fight against Takfiri terrorist groups that were intent on overthrowing the legitimate government of Syria that is now the primary component in the domestic peace process. It would of course represent a partial (key word) military victory for Syria and a political victory for President Al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Ba’ath party that Syria’s enemies sought to destroy through the use of force.  Instead the Ba’ath party remains the most prominent in Syria and this is likely not going to change barring another cataclysmic phase of the war. Finally, it would be a victory for Turkey which more than any other power in the conflict has displayed pragmatism in embracing the Astana Format, giving up all negative political ambitions in Syria and is now fighting YPG/PKK terrorists for the benefit of both Turkey and Syria’s territorial integrity and much to the detriment of an aggressive United States and “Israel”.

The key to understanding why for Syria, such a peace process would only be a “half” or maybe “3/4th” victory is because Syria maintains a policy of militarily liberating “every inch” of Syria before any political solution is finalised. For many Syrians this also includes an implicit commitment to force (key word) out the US and “Israel” (for many Syrians Turkey as well, in spite of Turkey’s participation in the Astana process) from the legally defined territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. While Syria has a 100% legal right to attempt and achieve this perfectly legal goal, the implied dangers in attempting such operations are clear enough.

And this is where Iran comes in. Iran is if anything even more enthusiastic about the “every inch” policy than the Syria itself. This is particularly true when it comes to liberating the Golan Heights from illegal Zionist occupation. On the other side of this spectrum is Russia which has clearly struck a deal with Tel Aviv that has led even the most hawkish members of the “Israeli” regime to give Syria what in the eyes of the Zionists is the “deal of the century”. For the first time in its history, the Zionist regime has agreed to de-facto admit that it will not be able to nor even try to topple a staunchly anti-Zionist Arab Nationalist government, much though it has tried. Given how much effort “Israel” has put into toppling President Bashar Al-Assad and his father President Hafez Al-Assad before him, Russia’s ability to get “Israel” to admit that it no longer seeks to remove President Assad so long as Iran gradually withdraws from the conflict, is an even bigger climb-down for “Israel” than in 1956 when the USSR and USA both forced “Israel” Britain and France to withdraw from their aggression against Nasser’s Egypt.

Recently, the ultra-hawkish Zionist Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a Russian journalist that Tel Aviv is “not going to interfere in the internal Syrian affairs”. Even by the standards of the early and mid 1990s when Syria and an allegedly less hawkish “Israel” inched close an ultimately failed reconciliation attempt, this is one of the most conciliatory statements an “Israeli” minister has ever made to its Arab Nationalist neighbour. This is not to say that “Israel” still does not wish ill to Syria and nor is it to say that “Israel” will comply with the UN and hand back the occupied Golan Heights to Damascus, but what it does mean is that Tel Aviv is acknowledging that not only is regime change off the table, but that most forms of meddling in Syria are off the table once again too. In other words, “Israel” will grudgingly return to the pre-2011 status quo if Iran were militarily extricate itself from Syria in the near future.

Lieberman further stated that he hoped that Russia would “take into account Israel’s interests related to our security as well”. This coded phrase obviously means that Tel Aviv would like Russia to continue its existing policy of trying to persuade Iran into pivoting its military presence in Syria to one that is more squarely aligned with a political settlement now that most Takfiri groups have either been defeated or are on the verge of defeat. While Russia will not adopt America’s zero-sum approach and ‘force’ Iran to limit its military presence in Syria, Russia has other more subtle and non-violent ways of making its position known.

In other words, if Russia persuades Syria to help Iran proliferate a dignified gradual military withdrawal from Syria in exchange for Iran publicly shifting to an embrace of the Russo-Turkish politically driven peace process process, Tel Aviv will have no choice but to stop meddling with Syria. If “Israel” were to renege on its deal, one would see Russia implicitly siding with Syria in such a matter, as to paraphrase the words of geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko, Russia’s balancing strategy is based around propping up the underdog in any particular regional conflict in order to achieve a “balanced” outcome.

If Syria and Iran were to mutually agree on Russia’s political strategy, this would not mean that a war to liberate the Golan or even a war to liberate Palestine could not occur. It just means that it certainly could not occur in the near future, but that instead could occur further down the road. Such a reality could be called the “live to fight another day strategy” and it is one that Russia has encouraged in Syria in respect of liberating the Golan, liberating the USA/YPG/PKK occupied parts of Syria and also in respect of moderating the Damascus-Ankara conflict, a conflict in which Russia would be furious if either party, but particularly Damascus fired a shot in anger. If anything, Putin may well have tried to persuade his Syrian counterpart to attend September’s meeting between the Presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Tehran in a move that would see Russia fostering a much needed Ankara-Damascus rapprochement in the context of the Astana format. Indeed, Russia tried to convince President Al-Assad to attend the meeting of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders in Ankara in April of this year, but to no avail. With Iran being allied soil from Syria’s perspective, it is highly likely that Putin made the case for Syria’s President to directly participate in the next meeting between Astana group heads of state with even more vigour than he did in April.

While President Al-Assad has said he embraces Russia’s plans to fast-track a constitutional reform committee which is what is required to force the UN to rubber stand an official ‘notice of mission accomplished’ in the Syria conflict and one that would necessarily embarrass the US for its giant geopolitical failure while tacitly rewarding Russia for actually doing something in the Middle East that was successfully unlike its perpetually tail-spun US rival, Iran will likely maintain its reservations about such a political process before “every inch” can be liberated. Syria’s decision on the matter is therefore anything but final.

What is clear is that Russia stated its position clearly and strongly. While Syria and Russia remain important partners, like with any long term partnership there are bound to be disagreements. This is clearly the low ebb in the Russo-Syria partnership but it is one that will hopefully resolve itself along the lines of the win-win model that Russia intends to pursue throughout the Middle East.

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