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US-Russia Division of Labor and the Two Screens of the Syrian Crisis

In the beginning of this coming November, talks about the future of Syria will start officially under UN auspices. Two screens will be put in front of all of us. The first will transmit alive the work of Stafan de Mistura’s four committees: Security and civilian protection-Terrorism- Political and legal issues-Reconstruction. The second screen will be dark. It is supposed to transmit the unseen web of channels where pressures, persuasion, exchanges and deals are made. Because it all goes secretly, the second screen has nothing to show us.

Like that shrewd desert nomad who dismantled the TV set to get the pretty woman he just saw on the screen, let us take a look behind the dark screen.

There are no pretty women back there. Only grim men all talking at the same time. Yet, all the big words exchanged boil down to some simple facts. Too simple to justify the crowd. Everyone knows that Assad cannot rule Syria anymore. Even the man’s supporters understand that. Everyone knows that ISIL is evil. It killed Muslims more than it killed anybody else. Why is all this fuss then?

The “logical” answer to all questions lies is one single “master pass word”: Get rid of Assad and form a national unity government so everyone fights what everyone sees as evil: ISIL.

Yet, one hate to admit it-You cannot use the word “logical” in the Middle East anymore. Devils dwell permanently in one place-the details, even the simplest problem and the most logical solution fragments in our fingers into hundreds of tiny little details. And devils have all the fun in the world in making what is simple very complex.

Still, there is quite a bit behind the dark screen. In Oman, it is whispered that the US started already its secret regional negotiations. The idea of having such talks was already discussed between Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif on the corridors of their nuclear talks. However, the Iranians said that they rather finish first with the nuclear talks before embarking on any other track. Sort of “We will not give up any of our cards before we get the big prize-the nuclear deal”. And now, with the nuclear deal signed, and the few weeks of picking the breath over, the regional talks started exactly in the same place where the nuclear talks began in secret behind a similar screen.

But what is exactly the connection between the de Mistura talks, visible on the first screen, and the Oman secret talks invisible on the second? None, so far. De Mistura is trying to stir the hay in hope he may locate the small pieces of gold. The Muscat talks are heading to the mine directly. For if a regional arrangement is reached, the branches of the regional crisis can be trimmed relatively easy.

It appears from putting all bits and pieces together that Secretary Kerry reached a kind of division of labor with foreign minister Lavrov. What we may be seeing is that the US leaves the public diplomatic track to the Russians and the UN while Washington goes directly behind the dark screen.

Aware of Arab suspicions of tilting towards Iran, the US left favored quite diplomacy. If Mr. Kerry proposes that Assad remains in power for some time, he wouldn’t be blamed in Arab capitals for cozying up to the Iranians. This will even look as “taking the Arab side” while “those Russians” are playing games. To that extent, the US hinted to the Arabs and the Syrian opposition that it has nothing to do with the “Russian games”.

Whatever the case, it makes little difference if there is indeed a Russian-US prearranged set of steps or that these steps are simply taking place on two different tracks due to genuine different assessments. Objectively, the two roles complete each other in many ways.  

The Russian-de Mistura track gives the administration some space to breath (as if 5 years were not enough). It enables it, through reading the details of the Russian de Mistura track, to gauge the extent to which the relevant parties are ready to go.  

But wouldn’t that mean that Russia will lose favor with the Arabs? The Saudis seem to have given up on Moscow. King Salman cancelled any plans for a Moscow visit and is coming instead to Washington. Yet, the Russians had nothing to lose in Riyadh anyway other than some amateurish promises of future deals if they change their policies. But they know that if they change their policies, they will lose some very concrete gains. Iran has just been rehabilitated on the global theatre, with substantial assistance from Moscow, and it has a lot that the Russians want.

Not only that Russia did not lose anything it already has in its relations with the Saudis, it is gaining with other Arab players. King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Abdel Fattah Al Sissi of Egypt and Mohammed bin Zayed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi were all in Moscow last week talking Syria among other things. Moscow seems to be gaining slowly from the US lack of a dynamic regional strategy. And Washington seems to have already given Mr. Lavrov the green light to do what he can, so far as it is in the visible screen. The US does not seem interested to walk the walk and have a dynamic strategy. It believes it is a costly business. The Russians, however, are doing it without paying anything whatsoever. They just gain.

In playing different roles, the US and Russia’s plan, if there is one, seems to be connecting, at one point, what the US has in hand with what the Russians accumulated. If this is indeed the case, and we certainly do not know if it is, it will be a master piece of diplomacy. In fact, it might work.   

De Mistura told everyone that his joint venture with the Russians, which goes under the not very inspiring name “Geneva-3”, is being actively prepared. Geneva-3, he said, will be characterized by an even less inspiring name-“a process”. It will take all the time it needs. Listeners were thinking of one thing while the soft spoken UN envoy was explaining his plan. They heard the word “process” before-The infamous grey-haired Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians which has gone missing some time ago and still missing until now.

Four committees, a Geneva-3 (1 and 2 went missing as well by the way), and a process on top? Too much to swallow. What Mr. de Mistura serves cannot be called a decent appetizer. Yet, what seems to be buried deep in the head of the UN envoy is that he should keep the theatre opened and lighted waiting for what Secretary Kerry will deliver later. He will test the actors, rehearse an act or two and measure how far each can go. True that Mr. de Mistura is using very unattractive words, but they, with some assistance from the Security Council, are doing the job. The meal will not be fancy, so do not expect a mouthwatering appetizer.   

We don’t know more about what is behind the dark screen however. We tried all the tricks, including the nomad’s, to no avail. If we shoot a bullet in the dark we would venture a guess: A regional détente around a kind of grand bargain that starts from the mother of all crisis-Syria. Sort of exploring what President Rouhani called “The Third Way”, though we do not know the first two. If we are unlucky and nobody screams in the darkness, it will be a narrow regional modus-operandi between the US and Iran. And that will be unfortunate indeed. For you cannot build a relation with any country in abstraction. It has to be around concrete problems that are important to both sides.

De Mistura promised that all issues will be on the table. But what about the fate of Assad? No, not that one. The armed opposition? Not that one neither. Then let us talk about the weather today. Transitioning Syria without saying transitioning to what is a waste of time. What could be extracted from the envoy is that the Syrian butcher will depart “at one point down the road”, if all goes well.

The devils are back. What does it mean “if all goes well”? Does it mean that Iran will have certain “privileges” in Syria, particularly related to access to Hezbollah? Will the opposition backers in the Arab World accept that? Could Syrian opposition groups sign a deal that give their country sovereignty minus a corridor or unchecked land or air cargos crossing to Lebanon? Will ISIL let all “go well”? Will Assad do? Will Jabhat Al Nusra suddenly learn how to sing Lennon’s “Imagine”. Lots of devils.

But all these crucial issues are left to the dark screen. For those who ask why de Mistura does not say anything about the future of Assad or the rest of these thorny issues, the answer is that because he shouldn’t. That is not his piece in the division of labor. These questions are to be answered in a larger trade behind the dark screen.

This is why de Mistura’s Geneva-3 is risky. It has to have more contents than just jumping in the air in order to attract the players, and it has to have less contents to avoid answering the real questions. He is the theatre keeper and boy-scout explorer. His job is not to answer specific questions, but to see where everyone stand. And who knows, he may even be able to get the parties ready for the meal which is being was prepared somewhere else when it is already prepared.

The only problem, and it is a big one, is that ISIL is there and Nusra is there and they are expanding. Some mean guys are heading to cut off electricity on both screens. They are advancing to a point where all this show will turn to be obsolete and too ridiculous to continue.

If they will have the last laugh, this laugh will be at all these diplomatic tricks and division of labor. The rate of progress does not reflect the urgency of the situation on the ground. The situation needs more fire under the pots.

Another risk seems to appear in the fog. If we gaze hard enough in Mr. de Mistura’s and the UN screen we will see how he formed the representatives of the Syrian opposition. None of the participants represent any of the major fighting forces on the ground.

The assumption is: The fighting forces on the ground could be addressed through regional powers. The civilian opposition is the one that should eventually form the transitional government in participation with the regime’s representatives.

Fine, let us see then if this “schizophrenic” approach-bombs for ISIL, Arab pressure for non-ISIL , and government seats for the civilian opposition-will work.

In the South, Zahran Aloush, the powerful leader of Jaish Al Islam, just received an open letter from his own fighters asking why he remains passive and postpones attacks on regime sites south of Damascus while Assad continues his merciless slaughter in the region particularly in Douma.

Let us imagine the following scenario: ISIL intensifies its propaganda war against the Southern Front, accusing Aloush of betraying the people of the South to suit his regional sponsors’ wishes (it is claimed that Aloush is restraining his forces in response to “recommendations” from across the borders). At one point, and under fully understandable ISIL-Nusra propaganda, it is likely that a portion of Aloush forces, as well as friendly groups outside the Southern Front, would join ISIL under the slogan of defending civilians and in the name of loyalty to the objective of fighting Assad until the end.

This is just one example that will give an idea that non-ISIL Islamist commanders maybe turned, unintentionally, into marginal players while their bases move to Nusra or ISIL’s camp that will certainly look more consistent during the period of diplomatic maneuvering.

The civilian opposition groups are really the good guys. But the ground of the fight shifted a large deal and have been fully submersed in the boiling waters of militarization. If you do not have a gun, you do not count. Will these nice guys accept to be used as a nice coat of paint covering an unchanged situation on the ground?

It is clear that the de Mistura entertaining show will go on with his endless meetings aimed at doing on specific job: Preparing the platform for the birds to land whenever they are ready.

But what if the birds land somewhere else?

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