Tag team effort

Putting two and two together, Mohammad Javad Zarif’s recent travels and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent chat with Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir point to a coordinated push by Bashar al-Assad’s two biggest allies, Russia and Iran, to follow-up the nuclear deal by recharging some kind of peace process in Syria. In fact, Zarif is supposed to be in Moscow on Monday to meet with Lavrov and discuss, you got it, Syria.

So far, Russia’s efforts at building consensus on a Syrian deal that allows everybody to focus their fire on ISIS have been decidedly less successful than Iran’s, though to be fair Zarif has been mostly talking to friendly audiences in Lebanon (Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah) and Damascus (Assad himself), while Russia has been talking to the Saudis and the “legitimate” Syrian opposition. Lavrov’s meeting on Thursday with Khaled Khoja, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, apparently left Khoja with the understanding that “the Russian authorities are not clinging to Bashar al-Assad personally, but rather they’re clinging to the Syrian state, its territorial integrity, and the preservation of its institutions.” The spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry countered that “we have always said that we do not support Assad in a personal capacity but that we support the legitimately elected president of Syria.”

On Friday, Lavrov met with Haytham Manna, who works with Syria’s National Coordination Committee, a group pushing political change in Damascus but that has been more reserved in its demands about Assad than other opposition groups, after which Manna said “we agreed that the fight against terrorism and the political process should happen together.” If true, that’s an interesting admission from Russia, which also recently showed a willingness to stray from total support for Assad when it agreed to support a UN investigation into the use of chemical weapons by both sides of the civil war.

There’s an opening there in all this rhetoric. Assad is “legitimately” elected in the same way that the Harlem Globetrotters “legitimately” win every game they play; the contest is rigged, but it’s the only contest there is. The final step in Zarif’s “four point plan” is an election with international observers that will presumably have to meet everybody’s standard of a “legitimate” election. Anything’s possible, but it’s hard to see how Assad could win a legitimate election at this point.

The thing is, they can’t possibly have a legitimate election in Syria while the opposition is in open rebellion and while ISIS controls so much of the country, which means there has to be some kind of interim arrangement. Zarif’s plan calls for a national unity government that will rewrite Syria’s constitution to explicitly protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. That national unity government could, in theory, end much of the rebellion while also bringing rebel and government forces, and their various international backers, together to focus on fighting ISIS and other ultra-extremist groups.

The national unity government is also the bit where consensus among all the players breaks down. Assad will insist that he play a major role in that interim arrangement, and Russia and Iran are supporting him there, but the opposition wants him out as a precondition to a peace deal. Jubeir’s discussions with Lavrov earlier this week broke down reportedly over just that point, and the SNC doesn’t seem prepared to concede a role for Assad either. Their (legitimate) fear is that Assad will use the national unity government to maintain his hold on power, and that, with Russian and Iranian backing, he’ll try to draw out the constitutional reform process and maybe even the fight against ISIS in order to delay elections.

This seems, and admittedly this is only by outward appearances, like the basis for a compromise, where the opposition acknowledges that, realistically, Assad has to get a seat at the table in the interim government (like it or not, he still controls a major portion of the country and could keep holding out for a while despite his current challenges), but is somehow prevented from gaming that part of the process to his own advantage. This is a step the US already seems to have taken, but other anti-Assad actors have yet to join them.

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