The Putin-Assad approach to diplomacy: Win the war, then talk

The New York Times reports: In brief remarks in Moscow, released on Wednesday after Mr. Assad’s departure, the two leaders promised to pursue “a long-term settlement, based on a political process that involves all political forces,” as Mr. Putin put it.

At the same time, they emphasized their united front against terrorists, which is how both characterize not just the Islamic State but all armed opponents of Mr. Assad’s government. And they said that a political solution was only possible after success on the battlefield, which neither defined, leaving the timing of any negotiations entirely unclear.

The question now is whether Mr. Putin can press Mr. Assad to accept a negotiated end to his rule. “Putin’s influence over Assad is like Obama’s over Netanyahu,” a diplomat based in Syria told a group of colleagues several months ago, before the Russian military intervention began, referring to the often truculent relationship between the American and Israeli leaders.

Mr. Assad has, in fact, proved at times to be a reluctant partner in Russia’s efforts to end the conflict. He has stood up on many occasions to the Kremlin, to the extent that diplomats and analysts say it has irritated Mr. Putin.

“I think they know how confused the Assad regime is, and they’re frustrated by it,” said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has followed the conflict closely, referring to the Russians.

He and others noted Russia’s efforts in January and April to broker talks in Moscow between Mr. Assad’s government and some of the armed groups rebelling against it. Those were coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and headed by Vitaly V. Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Mr. Assad’s representative, Bashar al-Jaafari, showed little flexibility in those talks, refusing to agree to confidence-building measures Moscow wanted, such as releasing political prisoners who might take part in a political solution.

The talks suggested the limits of Russia’s influence — even Mr. Putin’s. In 2012, Abdelaziz al-Khayer, a Syrian dissident, disappeared immediately upon returning to the country from China to participate in talks that were endorsed by Moscow. Diplomats and opposition figures have long said he was arrested by Mr. Assad’s security forces.

A Western diplomat recalled approaching his Russian counterpart to ask if Russia could pressure the Syrians to release him. “What do you think I’ve been doing?” the Russian diplomat responded.

Last year, another dissident, Louay Hussein, was arrested just before he was preparing to attend talks the Russians had organized in Moscow. He remained in prison for months, and came out declaring that he would no longer remain inside Syria trying to change the system from within. He had learned, he said, that Russia was unable, and Iran unwilling, to push Mr. Assad to any meaningful negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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