Officials are obsessing over procedures about who will meet with whom at the talks, which put them at risk. Behind the scenes, diplomats are saying that Russia is in the position to call the tune. With the United States now taking a diplomatic back seat, Russia, whose intervention helped Assad to recapture Aleppo, is potentially a kingmaker.
“Our task is only to stabilize the legitmate authorities and deliver a final blow against international terrorism,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday at a military ceremony as the talks began.
Moscow joined with Turkey and Iran to convene intra-Syrian negotiations to reinforce a shaky ceasefire and tried to expand their remit to political aspects, even making public a proposed Moscow-drafted constitution. The UN mandate for the talks includes discussing a new constitution, UN supervised elections and transparent and accountable governance.
At the moment, it is unclear to what extent Russia is willing to put pressure on the Syrian government to reach a political deal with the opposition. But the opposition wants Assad, who has ruled for 17 years, to relinquish power. European powers that back the rebels hope that Russia will be swayed by the European Union helping with the bill for Syria’s reconstruction, if all sides can seal a political agreement to end the conflict.
Questions also remain regarding Russia’s influence with Iran, Assad’s other ally, and its militias, or if it is turning a blind eye as they look to cement recent gains on the ground. “The (Syrian) regime and Hezbollah want to clear areas around Damascus which are still a threat to the capital,” said a Western diplomat. “After that, either they go towards Idlib or Deraa in the south.”
There is also little evidence of Moscow putting pressure on the government delegation. The Russian-drafted constitution, for example, alludes to Assad being in power for several seven-year terms. Russia’s military support may give it leverage over Assad, but it is not clear whether it will try to halt his military campaigns or give him their full backing.
“The Russians don’t have any position concerning Assad himself,” said Vasily Kuznetsov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. He noted that Syria’s fate was up to Syrians, and the Russian government was prepared to live with the outcome of any UN supervised elections.
The Russians also want to have the reconstruction costs of Syria taken on by the international community, something that could face resistance.
“The Russians really do not want to inherit a completely destroyed Syria – that’s a problem that would stick with them as long as Iraq has been haunting the Americans,” said a Middle East-based diplomat. But Russia is also struggling with the fact that the international community doesn’t want to pay for repairing the damage caused by Russian air strikes.