'A top Russian diplomat, Ambassador Alexander Aksenyonok told me in Sochi, Moscow is keen on a political settlement in Syria "as early as possible -- which is also our exit strategy",' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.
The sudden, unexpected meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Moscow late Tuesday, October 20, focused on the diplomatic push to kickstart a political process, according to prominent Russian experts here.
As a top Russian diplomat, Ambassador Alexander Aksenyonok (who was involved in the negotiations over the Dayton Accord) told me in Sochi today, October 22, Moscow is keen on a political settlement in Syria "as early as possible -- which is also our exit strategy."
From all accounts, the meeting in Moscow on Tuesday took place in an exceptionally warm, friendly atmosphere. Assad had come at short notice at Putin's invitation. The two leaders held delegation- level talks as well as a restricted meeting.
The official transcript by the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying to Assad, 'On the question of a settlement in Syria, our position is that positive results in military operations will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups.'
'Ultimately,' Putin added, 'it is the Syrian people alone who must have the deciding voice here. Syria is Russia's friend and we are ready to make our contribution not only to the military operations and the fight against terrorism, but also to the political process. We would do this, of course, in close contact with the other global powers and with the countries in the region that want to see a peaceful settlement to this conflict.'
Taken in their totality, Putin's remarks ought to dispel whatever fanciful notions (or canards) spread by the detractors in the West and in the region that Russia could be veering round to the view that Assad needed to step down to clear the way for a new government in Syria.
On the contrary, Tuesday's meeting in the Kremlin underscored the strong bonding between the two countries and the two leaderships. In fact, the 'red carpet' welcome prepared for Assad by the Kremlin -- with great deliberation, of course -- has predictably ruffled feathers in Washington. The White House spokesman openly lamented that it is 'at odds with the stated goal by the Russians for a political transition in Syria.'
Conceivably, it also could have caused some discomfort to Washington that Putin decided to schedule his meeting with Assad on the very same day that the US and Russia exchanged an agreed memorandum concerning the prevention of air incidents over Syria.
Equally, the scheduling of Putin's meeting with Assad on just ahead of the quadripartite talks at foreign minister level between the US, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on Friday, October 23, at Vienna carries its own symbolism.
Indeed, Putin spoke on the phone with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Saudi King Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan on Wednesday, October 21, to inform them of 'the results of the talks' with Assad the previous evening.
All in all, therefore, Assad's visit to Moscow signals in political terms the formal start to Putin's diplomatic drive on Syria. A robust Russian push for a meeting of outside powers with influence in Syria to come to grips with resuming negotiations can now be expected at the meeting in Vienna, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will be attending.
On the other hand, Putin's conversations with the Turkish and Arab leaders to fill them in regarding his talks with Assad convey a strong message that in the Russian estimation Assad remains a fully functioning head of State, he figures as a key protagonist in any political process and his interests cannot be ignored in any political process. No doubt, the ground reality is also that the Russian air strikes have strengthened the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, Turkey will be watching with growing unease reports lately suggesting that the Syrian Kurds might open an 'office' in Moscow. A top expert on the Middle East Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said today that the Syrian Kurds hope to have an entity of their own in their homelands in the northern part of the country, but the bottom line for the Syrian-Arab parties will be to preserve the country's unity at all costs and, therefore, Russia's role will be of a 'mediator.'
However, the impression becomes unavoidable that Moscow feels exasperated by the duplicity in Turkey's stance on the Syrian question. It could be that Turkey is finally getting that message as well and could be cautiously readjusting its stance on Assad.
A senior Turkish official said in Ankara on Monday that Turkey is willing to accept a political transition in which Assad remains in power for six months before leaving office. Clearly, Turkey has painted itself into a corner, given its acute awareness that a direct confrontation with Russia is far too risky.
As for Saudi Arabia, it is already stretched in Yemen and is unlikely to annoy Moscow by shifting gear to beef up the rebel groups opposed to Assad. At the most, it may allow the flow of cash. At any rate, the speculative talk about Saudi Arabia gearing up to do a replay of the 'Afghan jihad' of the eighties in Syria in the months ahead is way past the realms of possibility.
Again, it remains to be seen whether the Jordanian King Abdullah, who has been steadily building up ties with the Kremlin over the past year or two, would allow his country's territory to be used for routing weapons to the rebel groups in Syria. Contrary to earlier reports, Jordan is not taking part in the talks in Vienna on Friday, although US Secretary of State John Kerry had mentioned it as one of the invitees.
Given the US decision to close its training camps for Syrian rebels, it is entirely conceivable that that Jordan is quietly pulling out from the Syrian enterprise.
Interestingly, the Iranian ambassador to Russia Mehdi Sanaei disclosed here today that the powerful speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Ali Larijani, is arriving in Moscow in the weekend on an official visit. Without doubt, Larijani's talks with the Russian leaders will focus on Syria.
The timing of Larijani's visit to Moscow, again, pours cold water on the speculation that Russia and Iran have competing interests in Syria. There has been some speculation lately that Moscow may be willing to let go of Assad, but Tehran insists on Assad's continuance and so on. Tuesday's meeting in the Kremlin rubbishes them -- for the present at least.
It is about time a fresh speculation now begins that Assad's choice of Moscow for his first visit abroad after the Syrian civil war started four years ago is a subtle message to Iran that it is Russia that is in the driving seat. Whereas, as Larijani's visit testifies, the reality is that Russia is working with Iran closely on the Syrian question.
At the meeting in Moscow on Tuesday, Assad pointedly conveyed his appreciation to Putin on Russia 'joining in the military operations as part of a common front in the fight against terrorism.' Of course, Assad didn't spell out the composition of the 'common front,' but then, he didn't need to when it is widely known that Iran is a key constituent of it.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar is a keen observer of Russia and the Middle East.
IMAGE: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Russian President Vladmir Putin at the Kremlin, October 20. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Reuters