On December 20, 2016, the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish defense and foreign ministers met in Moscow to discuss potential solutions to the Syria crisis. Following the meeting, the ministers announced that they had approved the Moscow Declaration, which Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu described as a roadmap devised by Russian experts to resolve the crisis. This move comes at the same time as another recent initiative proposed by Russia – that the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition conduct negotiations in Kazakhstan's capital Astana.
These initiatives reflect the Russian desire for a political solution to the Syria crisis that will be in accordance with Russia's viewpoint. Emboldened by its military victory in Aleppo and by the international community's, and particularly the U.S.'s, failure to act during the Syrian regime's brutal attack on the city, Russia aims to establish a new political framework and new terms of reference that will circumvent or replace the current basis of the political process – the 2012 Geneva I communique. In order to legitimize its initiative and force the Syrian military and political opposition to join this process, Russia is trying to gain the support of the opposition's main sponsors. After obtaining Turkey's approval for its initiatives, Russia invited Saudi Arabia to join the process, and at the same time pushed the U.S. and E.U. aside.
That Russia is seeking to change the terms of reference and framework for the political process is confirmed by statements by representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition, as well as by articles in the Syrian government press.
This report will review statements by Russian officials and by representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition on the issue.
The foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey at the December 20, 2016 joint press conference (image: alhayat.com)
Russian Foreign Minister: The Framework We Are Promoting Is The Most Effective One
The Moscow Declaration, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statements at a joint press conference following the meeting, make clear Russia's intent to create an alternative framework for the talks between the Syrian regime and opposition. Russia is also attempting to establish itself as the main sponsor for this process, together with the Syrian regime's other ally, Iran, and with Turkey, and to push out the U.N., U.S., and E.U. that formed a counterbalance to this approach.
Thus, the Moscow Declaration completely disregards the Geneva I communique and takes Security Council Resolution 2254, from December 2015, which grew out of a Russian initiative, as the sole basis for the political process. The declaration includes:
- Recognition of Syria's sovereignty and contiguity as a democratic and secular country;
- The understanding that there is no military solution to the crisis;
- Recognition of the importance of the U.N. in the efforts to resolve the crisis in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254;
- Willingness on the part of Russia, Iran, and Turkey to be guarantors for any agreement negotiated by the Syrian regime and opposition that starts a political process that is in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254.
The declaration also expresses the three countries' determination to fight ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra [now called Jabhat Fath Al-Sham], and to separate them from the other armed opposition factions.
Also at the press conference, Lavrov stressed the Russian view of the aims of the political process. Russia, Iran, and Turkey agree, he said, that the main goal is not regime change, but ending the suffering of innocent civilians, solving humanitarian problems, and waging an uncompromising fight against terrorism.
While underlining the importance of the U.N.'s role, Lavrov, who had disregarded a call made one day earlier by U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to hold talks between the Syrian sides in Geneva in February 2017, went on to say that the U.N.'s efforts had failed, and that "the framework that you see today [i.e., the Moscow Declaration] is the most effective one." He said that the International Syria Support Group, which had produced understandings to resolve the crisis, had been "unable to implement the decisions that were made and to establish oversight apparatuses for implementing them."
Similarly, Russian Defense Minister Shoygu said: "All previous attempts at dialogue with the local actors by the U.S. and its partners have failed. None of them have any real influence on the events on the ground."
Articles In Syrian Regime Dailies: The Aim Is To Create New Terms Of Reference For Negotiations As Alternative To Geneva I
The Syrian regime also underlined the importance of the tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish meeting that led to the Moscow Declaration and its ramifications for the political process. Thus, Bouthaina Sha'aban, a political and media advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, said: "Syria accepts the outcome ["i.e. the Moscow Declaration"], which marks the end of an era and the start of a new one, especially in light of the absence of the American side – which [once] thought it was key to solutions everywhere." She did, however, express some reservations, saying: "It is not yet clear how successful this will be, and what its results will be."
Columnists for the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, wrote that the Russian initiatives aim to formulate new terms of reference as an alternative to Geneva I, while marginalizing the U.N. and U.S. Muhammad 'Abid assessed that a struggle was underway between the old axis and the new one over the negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition: "The old axis is trying to take back the reins of initiative by means of the call by Staffan de Mistura, the personal representative of the U.N. secretary-general, [to the Syrian regime and opposition] to renew talks in Geneva in early February, based on the same apparatus and with the participation of the same elements [as the previous talks], namely the Riyadh delegation and the [Syrian] government delegation... [On the other hand,] the new axis, comprising Russia, Iran, and Turkey, is working to move the talks to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. This tripartite axis, [the product of current] circumstances, will have a direct influence in these talks, primarily by adopting more dynamic apparatuses that will surely facilitate swift actual results, with one or more delegations, [which are different] from the Riyadh delegation..."
Ahmad Hassan, a columnist for the official Syrian daily Al-Ba'th, also wrote that the Geneva track had ended with the Syrian regime's victory in Aleppo, but that the Astana talks would be another stop on the road to holding final negotiations in Damascus. He wrote: "Aleppo is the final stop on the Geneva train, which was formulated without Syrians. A new train will leave this station for a final defined direction – Damascus – where the final and full solution to the crisis [will be found]. However, for reasons of diplomacy, there may be other stops, temporary and helpful, and Astana might be among them. This stop, if approved, will highlight the change that Aleppo has imposed [in terms of] who will represent the opposition [in the negotiations] and who will sponsor the political solution..."
Syrian Opposition Elements: We Fear That Geneva I Will Be Disregarded
The Syrian opposition also thinks that the Russian initiatives are aimed at rendering Geneva I obsolete as the terms of reference for the political process, and at circumventing the U.N.-sponsored talks. Thus, following the Russian announcement of talks to be held in Astana between the Syrian regime and opposition, the information office of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC) issued a statement stressing that the committee is willing "to continue U.N.-sponsored talks in accordance with the Geneva I communique and relevant international resolutions, and to implement them by establishing a transitional ruling body with full authority, and commence talks on a true political transition phase..."
On December 22, 2016, HNC spokesman Mundhir Makhous stated that the HNC is disinclined to participate in the Astana talks since the opposition is against participating in any meeting or conference unsponsored by the U.N. He added that the opposition was willing to continue the Geneva talks from the point at which they were stopped, i.e., to discuss the transitional phase, but not to go back to square one. He noted that the HNC had not yet received an invitation to participate in the Astana talks, and that the official decision on this would be taken at its next meeting.
Hassan 'Abd Al-'Azim, chairman of the Syria-based National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which is more moderate than the HNC vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, demanded clarification in the matter of whether the planned Astana conference was an alternative to the Geneva conference and communique, emphasizing: "We oppose any conference or meeting that closes the door to the Geneva I communique and its complimentary international resolutions... We want to know whether [the Astana talks] will facilitate the political process [declared by Staffan de Mistura] for February 8, or if it is an alternative that will prevent [implementation] of the Geneva I communique, dialogue between the opposition and regime, and the formation of a wide national unity government... If the [Astana conference] is only attended by Russia, Turkey and Iran, without the U.S., E.U., and U.N., then it will absolutely not resolve the crisis, but will deepen it..."
Article In Saudi Daily: The Aim Of The Tripartite Meeting Is To Outline A New Roadmap That Will Leave Assad In Power And Exclude Gulf States From Syria Issue
In her column in the Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Raghida Durgham stated that the aim of the tripartite meeting was to exclude the U.S., Europe and the Gulf states from the solution to the Syria crisis. She also attacked Turkey for trading its excellent relations with the Gulf states for "participation in the wicked strategy of Russia and Iran." She wrote: "The tripartite meeting [between the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish defense and foreign ministers in Moscow on December 20, 2016], who [undertook to be] 'guarantors' for the political process in Syria, abolishes the principles of the so-called Geneva [I] communique and the [October 30, 2015] Vienna conference. This troika, which is operating militarily in Syria, believes that the military paradigm now [enables it] to start dividing the cake and the [influence] zones as part of a tripartite agreement that does not include the U.S., Europe, the Gulf States or the U.N. The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey convened this week, following the conquest of Aleppo, in order to put forth a political roadmap that abolishes what was agreed upon [in the Geneva I conference] regarding establishing a transitional ruling [body] with full authority in Syria that will rule until presidential elections are held [there].
"This tripartite meeting is [aimed], first and foremost, at guaranteeing that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remain in power with full authority, and conforms to the demands of Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Arab states have been excluded from [the handling of] the Syrian issue, especially the Gulf states. [The latter] were counting on [their] excellent relations with Turkey, [but] Turkey has clearly traded these relations with participation in the wicked strategy of Russia and Iran. It has adopted a strategy of cementing the role played by Russia and Iran in Syria, [a strategy] which it believes guarantees it a place on the winning side, while ignoring its commitments and promises to the Gulf states. Turkey has [thereby] provided Moscow with a Sunni fig leaf, allowing it to avoid accusations that it [established] a Russian-Shi'ite alliance in the battle for Aleppo, the largest Sunni Arab city [in Syria]...
"Russia, Iran and Turkey's exclusion of the U.S. from the [December 20] meeting Moscow came after [the U.S.] excluded itself from the Syria war, in accordance with the policy of President Obama... America, which has stayed out of the Syria [issue] of its own free will, seems like a marginalized and insignificant [player]... The Obama administration leaves Washington with Aleppo haunting it. The outgoing U.S. president has a hand in this Syrian humanitarian tragedy, since he deliberately chose to remain uninvolved in the Syria [issue], and [thereby] paved the way for Russia to rebuild its influence in the Middle East and rewarded Iran for its extremism and welcomed its military involvement in Syria...
"Turkey has placed its supreme interests in the Russian basket, and has effectively relinquished any position calling to topple Bashar Al-Assad. By joining the troika that [has undertaken to] 'guarantee' [the political process in Syria], it has granted Assad legitimacy... There is still a great deal of uncertainty in Syria, but it is clear that Russia is determined to outline a military and political roadmap that will eliminate past understandings..."
* N. Mozes and Dr. M. Terdiman are research fellows at MEMRI.
 Rbc.ru, December 20, 2016.
 In late June 2012, over a year after the outbreak of the Syria crisis, the foreign ministers of the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, and the EU convened in Geneva. At the end of their meeting, they issued a Final Communique that included the following points:
- The responsibility for the crisis and its solution was placed primarily on the Syrian regime.
- A call for an immediate ceasefire and for the Syrian government to take confidence-building steps such as releasing political prisoners and enabling freedom of protest.
- Solving the crisis will take place via an interim phase that will include establishing a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over intelligence services. According to the communique, this body "could include members of the present government" as well as from the opposition and other groups.
- The Communique states that "there can be a review of the constitutional order and the legal system. The result of constitutional drafting would be subject to popular approval." That is, there is no explicit demand to draft a new constitution.
- After the establishment of constitutional order, free and fair multiparty elections will be held for the new institutions and offices established in the constitution.
- A continuity of governmental institutions and qualified staff, including intelligence services and military forces, must be preserved, but they must operate according to professional standards while protecting human rights. In effect, this is a demand for a fundamental change in the behavior of these organizations. It was also stated that these institutions would be subordinate to the transitional governing body.
- Demanding accountability for acts committed during the conflict and carrying out national reconciliation, possibly according to the South African model.
- The opposition elements that would conduct the negotiations were left undetermined.
- Assad was not mentioned in the communique, but its content indicates that as part of the transitional process, he will be held accountable and will relinquish his powers to the transitional governing body. However, the communique did not specifically determine that he should step down.
(source: un.org, June 30, 2012).
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 21, 2016. This invitation was possibly aimed not only at obtaining Saudi Arabia's legitimization of the process, but also at embarrassing it.
 For the differences between the Geneva I communique and Resolution 2254, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1214, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 On Syria: International Community Softens Its Position On Assad Regime, December 28, 2015.
 Zamanalwsl.net, December 20, 2016.
 A group established in 2015, which includes Russia, the U.S., Iraq, Iran, the Arab League, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.K., and the U.N. A statement issued by the group in November 2015 was the basis for Security Council Resolution 2254.
 Mid.ru, December 20, 2016.
 Rbc.ru, December 20, 2016.
 SANA (Syria), December 21, 2016.
 The Riyadh delegation represented the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) in talks that were held with the Assad regime in Geneva in January 2016. The HNC, formed in a conference in Riyadh on September 12, 2015, represents part of the Syrian opposition, especially the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
 Al-Watan (Syria), December 21, 2016.
 Al-Ba'th (Syria), December 20, 2016.
 Orient-news.net, December 17, 2016.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Syria), December 21, 2016.
 Al-Hayat (London), December 23, 2016.