Syria the Arena for Russia's Battle against the West and 'Jihadists'

06/14/2013 03:43 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2013

Western governments intend to head next week to the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) - which includes the seven Western industrial countries plus Russia - with some resolve on Syria. This comes after the battle of Qusayr exposed their failings and brought Syria into the hands of Iran. Washington is maintaining its slow rhythm of deliberating and of unhurriedly considering its options, while the orderly march towards the battle of Aleppo may well entrench the military balance of victory and defeat in favor of the regime in Damascus and its partner in the fighting, Hezbollah, as well as their Iranian, Russian and Chinese allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to strut around like a peacock amid the leaders of Western countries, who are going to great lengths to please him and convince him to stop embarrassing them in Syria. Indeed, he is at the height of happiness when engaged in the humiliation of Western leaders before his might, repaying them twofold in Syria for insulting him in Libya, regardless of the rising numbers of casualties, of refugees, and of displaced persons. It is Russia's battle against the West, and also the scene of Russia's battle against Islamists such as Al-Nusra Front and other Jihadist groups, far away from its home soil. As for US President Barack Obama, he is from President Vladimir Putin's perspective the gift that keeps on giving, being unwilling to get dragged into Syria, whether directly or by proxy. Thus the Syrian arena remains hostage to Russian-Iranian control and hegemony through what is a quintessentially American decision. Meanwhile, the race between the political and military tracks is ongoing in the war in Syria, with signs of change in Western stances, in terms of arming the opposition in some way in anticipation of the battle of Aleppo, so as for this battle not to expose Washington and its allies even further.

This is with regard to the military aspect and the changing balance of power over the dead bodies of Syrians. Regarding the political aspect, Geneva 2, sought by the Russians to be a United Nations conference sponsored by Putin and Obama, it simmers on low heat amid disagreements, most prominently those over Iran's role in Syria and the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. There are no indications that this meeting will be held before the coming battle for the balance of power through Aleppo, as the political aspect now takes the backseat to the military one in the Syrian equation. Meanwhile, talks between major powers at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland will broaden in forging bilateral and multilateral relations, and most prominently the relationship with Russia. One diplomat closely involved with the preparations currently underway described the situation as follows: no to defeat and no to victory - saying that the part reserved for "no to defeat" for regular Syrian troops and for Bashar Al-Assad was carried out specifically in the battle of Qusayr, while the part of "no to victory" for regime forces and for Bashar Al-Assad will come through the battle of Aleppo.

Everyone is now talking about a major confrontation on the issue of Aleppo, politically and militarily. The decision to be taken on the ground will not wait for summits and for preparations for the Geneva 2 conference or others, because it is Damascus and Tehran's decision to take, in partnership with Hezbollah. Russia is of course influential, but the main actor here is Iran, which will dictate whether or not the coming battle will require Hezbollah's participation. Some Russian statements suggest a language more critical of the Syrian President on the eve of the Irish summit, while others make perfectly clear how Russia is today reshaping international understandings to suit its needs and serve the regime in Damascus. What Russia's leadership is now saying, openly as well as in closed meetings, is that there is no logic to a "process of political transition" in the sense agreed upon at the Geneva 1 meeting, to which Joint Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League Lakhdar Brahimi had added that the transitional authority should hold full executive powers, which would mean that there would be an alternative government to the current regime, and which would hold full executive powers during the transitional period.

Russia is now opposing this, saying that the regime in Damascus must retain its security powers. This was previously said in the language of Assad continuing to exercise his powers as a "wartime president", because his country is going through a war. The language today is less combative, but the meaning is the same - namely that Russia does not approve of the Syrian President handing over the powers of his office to a transitional body. Russia thus wants in effect to do away with the notion of a transitional authority. Moreover, Russia now speaks of delegations, not of a single delegation, from the Syrian opposition. It seeks to fragment de facto representative of the Syrian opposition at the Geneva 2 conference, which Moscow seeks to make a UN conference.

The document presented by Russia about this conference, which is unpublished, states important points, among them the following, as listed in the document:

* That the conference should be held "in accordance with what was agreed upon in Moscow on May 7, 2013 between Russia's Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State, and on the basis of the closing statement of the ministerial meeting on Syria of June 30, 2012".

This means that Moscow has forcefully introduced the bilateral understanding between Kerry and Lavrov to the understandings reached in Geneva 1 in order to modify them, especially as Kerry backed down on May 7 on the stance the United States had been insistent upon, i.e. that Bashar Al-Assad must step down.

* Moscow wants United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to issue his invitations to the conference "in accordance with the Russian-American agreements reached on May 7". This means that Moscow is working consistently to dilute what was agreed upon in Geneva a year ago, when Hillary Clinton had been Secretary of State, and that it wants to replace Clinton with Kerry officially.

* The document states that the conference must necessarily be held "under the auspices of the United Nations and under the shared sponsorship of Russia and the United States", with the provision that "the sponsors will determine the date and the agenda, as well as who will be participating in the conference, after holding talks with the parties concerned". In addition to this, "the sponsors will monitor the implementation of the decisions reached at the conference, its activities and any task groups that are formed". This section translates as Moscow rejecting Geneva 1 in its entirety and seeking an alternative by having bilateral control of the conference, with Washington alone, with a symbolic contribution from the United Nations, i.e. what is left of the Geneva agreement, which is merely the fact that the conference will be held in Geneva.

* Russia proposes in its document a comprehensive UN conference under Russian-American sponsorship, with the participation of the five permanent members of the Security Council - China, Britain and France alongside Russia and the United States - and of the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Lakhdar Brahimi. As for the countries participating, they are "neighboring" and "other regional" countries, and include Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. In other words, Moscow wants to restore its glory days, back when it was in the Soviet Union. For it to sponsor, together with the United States, a UN conference on Syria represents a gateway for the two poles to return to draft a roadmap for Syria in which it insists for Iran to play a role.

The point here is that Russia wants Iran to have a seat at the table, and wants for itself a similar status to that of the United States, as a "sponsor" of the conference. Here Moscow seems clear in considering Syria to represent an important gateway for Russia to play a regional role that would restore its past standing and place in its hands the instruments of decision-making.

* The document states that "Syrian parties at the conference will be represented through the participation of the Syrian government on the one hand, and of all opposition groups that behave on the basis of reaching a political settlement to the crisis within the framework of the Geneva agreement, on the other".

At this level, Moscow has decided that it does not want a single or unified delegation from the opposition, and does not wish for the Syrian National Coalition to represent the opposition. It seeks to ensure the presence of the internal opposition, as it is called at the conference table, and also wishes to emphasize the lack of unity of the Syrian opposition.

* Moscow wants the participants to adopt a joint statement at the start of the conference in which they would assert their "commitment to a peaceful solution" on the basis of "putting a stop to armed violence and to incitement, putting an end to all forms of foreign involvement, and ceasing to provide illegal weapons to militants". In other words, Moscow wants to shackle the opposition militarily as a starting point.

* The document states that "launching the negotiation process" aims at reaching a "joint agreement between the Syrian government and opposition groups" over a transitional authority as per the 2012 Geneva statement. Here Moscow makes the transitional authority contingent upon a "joint agreement" which the government in Damascus would have a major say in. But most importantly, the aim of the conference is to "launch a negotiation process" to achieve this goal.

* The priorities listed in the Russian document are: "a ceasefire, a transitional authority, and the state regaining full sovereignty in Syria within and at its borders", in addition to "coordinating efforts to combat terrorism, the activity of mercenaries and thugs, gangsterism and other forms of organized crime" - meant here are those groups being today referred to as "takfiri", and no one else. This is alongside other issues listed in the document, among them the release of detainees who have not been convicted of engaging in criminal activity, and of individuals who have been "unlawfully detained by any party to the conflict". The document's list of priorities ends with priority number 8, where it speaks of "the return of refugees and of those internally displaced".

* The document concludes with the recommendation that four task groups be formed that would be concerned with military and political stability, inter-Syrian dialogue, "normalizing the financial, economic, and humanitarian situation", assisting those who have suffered harm, and the return of refugees.

The three Western countries at the Security Council - the United States, Britain and France - presented their own document, as did the United Nations Secretariat, ahead of the tripartite meeting that brought together representatives of the three parties a few days ago on June 5. This document focuses on the fact that the aim of Geneva 2 is to address the process of political transition as per the Geneva 1 statement, especially in terms of the transitional body holding full executive powers. It also suggests for the list of participants to include the five permanent members of the Security Council, Turkey, Iraq, Germany, Italy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Catherine Ashton, alongside the Secretary-General of the United Nations and that of the Arab League, in addition to other countries interested in helping to find a peaceful solution to the crisis and in participating within a different framework prior to the Geneva 2 conference, so as to have their points of view heard. The document states that countries that have not publicly expressed their support for the Geneva 1 statement would not be participating in the conference. It also mentions that Brahimi should be the one to supervise negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition.

As for the view of the UN Secretariat, it is to hold a ministerial meeting between all parties taking part in the conference, followed by a business lunch for the participants, after which Brahimi would hold a session between the delegations of the government and the opposition alone, without the participation of any other party. The Secretariat is of the opinion that the general understanding is for the opposition to participate with a single delegation that would include the Syrian National Coalition alongside other representatives of the opposition. According to reliable information, Brahimi has expressed support for Iran's participation in Geneva 2 and has backed Russia's stance on this important issue, which has drawn opposition from Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. The United States, according to this information, has rejected Iran's participation in the conference - knowing that Russian sources had previously stated that John Kerry suggested, within the context of the May 7 meetings and what followed them, that Washington was not opposed. It thus seems that Washington has either changed its mind or adopted this as its stance in negotiations.

All of these documents and negotiations come in parallel with military preparations for the battle of Aleppo, where "victory" may well be forbidden, after "defeat" was.

The tragedy is ongoing in Syria, and one feels grief for its children, who - according to UNICEF - are facing unprecedented dangers and threats to their lives. They are the grass upon which elephants dance.