President Assad of Syria has come unexpected to the Russian resort city of Sochi, where he is having high level talks with Russia’s President Putin and with Russia’s senior military leadership.
This is the second trip President Assad is known to have made to Russia since Russia intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015. The first trip came in late October 2015, shortly after the Russian military intervention began. Of course there may have been – and probably have been – other secret Assad trips to Russia, which have not been announced.
At the time of Assad’s first trip to Moscow the situation in Syria remained very fraught. The Jihadi rebels still held eastern Aleppo and had effectively surrounded the rest of the city and were pressing on the remaining territories the Syrian government still controlled along the coast. Further east the whole of central and eastern Syria had fallen under the control of ISIS, which had recently captured Palmyra. The Syrian military was over-stretched and exhausted, and in urgent need of time and help to sort itself out.
In summary, President Assad came to Moscow in October 2015 a drowning man to whom the Russians had just thrown a lifeline.
The situation is totally transformed today.
Not only has eastern Aleppo been liberated and the whole of Aleppo secured, but the authority of the Syrian government has been restored along the whole of Syria’s western coast with only the province of Idlib and a few pockets of territory still under Jihadi control.
In central and eastern Syria ISIS has been broken. Palmyra is now conclusively liberated, the siege of Deir Ezzor has been broken and the city cleared of ISIS, and following the liberation of Albukamal ISIS no longer controls any large or important towns in Syria, and has been reduced to a rural insurgency.
In the meantime the Syrian army has been expanded, retrained and re-equipped into a far more formidable force than it was before.
Though there are different estimates of the precise extent of the territory controlled by the Syrian government, when Assad came to Moscow in October 2015 the territories under the Syrian government’s control consisted of a small belt of territory along Syria’s western coastline, whereas now the greater part of Syria is once more indisputably under the Syrian government’s control.
In summary, Putin was fully justified in saying to Assad at the start of the summit today that
……the Syrian people, despite a very difficult ordeal, are gradually moving towards the final and inevitable defeat of the terrorists.
Why then is President Assad in Russia today?
The obviously very carefully prepared and pre-scripted comments Putin and Assad made to each other at the start of their meeting shows that with the war winding down the Russians want to consult with Assad about the political negotiations to achieve a Syrian settlement which are about to restart. Putin in fact said as much
Mr President, as you know, I will meet with my colleagues – the presidents of Turkey and Iran – here in Sochi the day after tomorrow. We have agreed to hold additional consultations with you during our meeting. Of course, the main subject on the agenda is a peaceful and lasting political settlement in Syria after the routing of the terrorists.
As you know, in addition to the partners I have mentioned we are also working closely together with other countries, such as Iraq, the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. We maintain constant contact with these partners.
I would like to talk with you about the basic principles of the political process and the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, the idea of which you have supported. I would like to hear your opinions on the current situation and development prospects and your views on the political process, which should ultimately be implemented under the UN auspices. We also hope that the UN will join the [political] process at its final stage.
(bold italics added)
Here it is necessary to make some comments about the speech President Assad made recently, which was discussed at length by my colleague Adam Garrie.
In the speech President Assad spoke of an ideology of Arabism, which as my colleague Adam Garrie correctly says is consistent with the Baathist ideology of Syria’s ruling party.
As Adam Garrie correctly says, what President Assad was doing in his speech was charting a future course for Syria and potentially for the whole Arab world which whilst in no sense opposed to Islam nonetheless looks to transcend sectarian and confessional differences on behalf of a united Arab nation.
It was in other words an emphatic restatement of the ideology of Arabism which has been around in the Arab world since the 1950s and which remains the prevailing ideology in Syria to this day.
President Assad is not however an ideologist but a practical politician, and the primary audience for his speech was not in my opinion Arab public opinion – which is already very familiar with all these arguments – but the Russians, with whom he currently must deal.
Briefly, what President Assad was saying in his speech was that Syria should retain its Arab identity, and should not make excessive concessions to the Kurds and to Syria’s various confessional groups.
He specifically ruled out changes to the official names of the country and the army, and said they should continue to be called the ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ and the ‘Syrian Arab Army’ and not become the ‘Syrian Republic’ and the ‘Syrian Army’.
The Russians – or at least some of them – have by contrast tentatively floated ideas of Syria doing precisely those things – of creating some sort of federal structure that would grant some form of political or cultural autonomy to the Kurds and to the country’s confessional groups, with the names of the country and the army being changed to the “Syrian Republic” and the “Syrian Army” – which President Assad said in his speech would be wrong and appeared to rule out.
The meeting between Assad and Putin appears to be intended to argue out these points, in preparation for the negotiations for the final settlement of the Syrian conflict which are about to start.
The meeting in Sochi also however has a military dimension. Putin often uses his Sochi residence as a venue for the large-scale conferences of top experts to discuss national policies which form an essential part of his governing style.
On 17th November 2017 – shortly before Assad arrived in Sochi – a major conference began there bringing together Russia’s senior military and the leaders of its defence industries to discuss the State Armaments Programme, which will shape the development of Russia’s armed forces up to 2025. The Kremlin’s website has published Putin’s introductory comments to the conference, which is apparently still continuing.
The Kremlin website shows that Putin arranged for Assad to participate in this conference
Meeting with senior officials of the Defence Ministry and the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces
Vladimir Putin: I have asked the President of Syria to attend our meeting.
I want him to see those who have played the key role in saving Syria.
Of course, Mr Assad knows some of you personally. He told me at our talks today that the Russian Army has saved Syria as a state. Much has been done to stabilise the situation in Syria. I hope that we will close the chapter on the fight against terrorism in Syria, although some seats of tension will remain or will flare up again……
(bold highlighting in the original)
At one level this is an extraordinary honour to the Syrian President. However there are obviously practical dimensions as well.
Firstly, there is the obvious wish to have President Assad give his personal thanks to the Russian military which saved him and Syria from destruction. However it is a certainty that future military cooperation was also discussed.
This will obviously include discussions on the ongoing military operations to bring the Syrian war to a final end. However it is a certainty that Syrian-Russian military cooperation beyond the war’s end will be discussed as well.
With Syria set to host a very large complex of Russian military bases, and with the Syrian military needing to be reconfigured and re-equipped to face the challenges of ‘peace’ (which in the Middle East is never truly peace) there will be much to talk about.