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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The issues of the Syrian crisis settlement are discussed today at two main venues — in Astana and in Geneva. The two negotiating processes are designed to complement each other — in Astana there is a dialogue on the cessation of hostilities, in Geneva they are trying to reach agreement on the political future of Syria. Naturally, both the composition of the negotiators and the format of their conduct are different. Figuratively speaking, an international fire brigade is working in Astana, trying to cope with the fire in a burning Syrian house, while in Geneva there is a multilateral committee of builders, engineers and developers, who are designing the renovated building of the Syrian statehood.

The fire team is currently working more harmoniously, faster and more successfully than the engineering and construction committee. The practical results of the Astana talks — reducing the level of armed violence in Syria — are visible to any impartial observer. But in Geneva the political future of Syria cannot be reached even in the very first approximation. There are many explanations of why there is a gap between Astana and Geneva, but the very fact of such a break is difficult to deny.

The Russian proposal to hold the Congress of the Peoples of Syria in Sochi looks like an attempt to overcome or at least to narrow this gap. On the one hand, the latest successes in Astana and on the battlefield should involve in the Congress a wide range of ethnic, political and religious groups, supporting both Damascus and the opposition. On the other hand, if the announced "wide spectrum" of participants is really to be assembled in Sochi, the Congress can become an effective catalyst for the Geneva process, forcing the slow and uncompromising negotiators in Switzerland to move from a dead end. In this sense, the composition of the Congress participants, the breadth of representation and its level will be an indicator of what was achieved or not achieved in Astana.

Of course, this initiative of Moscow, like any proposal coming from Russia today, gives rise to numerous suspicions, both in the West and in the circles of the "irreconcilable" Syrian opposition. Vladimir Putin is suspected of seeking to "replace Geneva with Astana." That means the intention to make the "Sochi format” of the political dialogue tightly tied to the negotiations in Astana that would make the continuation of the dialogue in Geneva simply unnecessary. Thus, Moscow could consolidate a "controlling stake" in the future Syrian statehood.

Probably, no one can convincingly and unconditionally explain to skeptics that in the Kremlin offices there are no such intentions and plans. Such an interpretation of Russian tactics seems unconvincing. Russian politics in Syria and the Middle East can be blamed for many sins, but in any case it cannot be considered unprofessional. The creation of a pocket "Sochi format" with the puppets of Bashar Assad and representatives of the "proper" opposition would not give Moscow any best cards in Syria settlement in addition to those that Moscow already has. It would undoubtedly add more problems. And first of all, in relations with Western partners, allowing them to disclaim any responsibility for the future fate of Syria and shifting this responsibility entirely to Russia's shoulders.

The current reality is that in Syria Russia with all its allies is capable to win the war, but not peace. The post-war socio-economic reconstruction of the country will require resources that neither Moscow, nor Tehran, nor Ankara simply have. The Gulf states have too many priority problems of their own, including Yemen and Qatar. China is hardly ready to act as the main donor of post-war Syria. The United States — at least as long as Donald Trump remains in the White House — will not invest in the Syrian recovery. There is the European Union, which has significant interests in the Middle East and financial opportunities for a large-scale assistance and investment for post-war Syria. So it is necessary to agree first of all with the European Union. Most likely it can happen in Geneva.

Of course, all this is perfectly understood in Moscow. Therefore, the initiative to hold the Congress of the Syrian people in Sochi is not a dig against the Geneva process, but rather an attempt to strengthen Russia's position in the future dialogue with Europe within the framework of the Geneva process. We can say, that while flying from Astana to Geneva, the aircraft captain made a logical decision to land in Sochi for refuelling.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club.

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