In an old Russian fairy tale, the tsar assigns a young warrior a series of impossible tasks in an attempt to have him killed so that he can marry the warrior’s beautiful wife: “Go I know not where and fetch I know not what.”
I am reminded of this tale as Moscow hosts three days of consultations on the impossible riddle that is the ongoing crisis in Syria.
After weeks and months of speculation, the so-called “informal meetings” are to be held in the Russian capital between January 26 and January 29, bringing to the table both Syrian government officials and the opposition.
The hope of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is that this time the two sides might be able to specify how they envisage a possible resolution – unlike the two rounds of Geneva talks that were stalled by procedural differences and failed to produce any discussions of a political solution.
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The crucial difference is that this time around the US has refrained from rejecting the presence of the Syrian government at the consultations – albeit, as they say, the night is still young.
Organised by the MFA, the meetings are supposed to be so informal that words such as “talks” and “negotiations” have officially been taken out of the diplomatic vocabulary altogether by the hosts.
The strange nature of these gatherings doesn’t end there.They say the best brains in the MFA have been burning the midnight oil for months, coming up with this format.
In the first two days, the meetings will be held between individuals representing different political and civil groupings. A delegation of the Syrian government officials will join later.
No Russian presence
The biggest surprise is that not a single Russian official is going to be present at the meetings. It is planned to be an exclusively Syrian affair, but will be moderated by Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the Institute of Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Science.
In an interview with Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, Naumkin said that the affair would be about “a free dialogue on the Moscow platform, with an open schedule, to discuss all questions relating to the possible resolution in Syria”.
He added that “it would be an inclusive dialogue without any preconditions”, which is, in a sense, a recipe for disaster. From my own experience on a BBC Arabic discussion, I have found that Syrian opposition leaders and self-styled politicians have a tendency to go into a frenzy and ignore each other.
In the debate with the leaders of different Syrian factions, I said that they should envisage a Geneva III and even a Geneva IV, V and VI. But my comments were dismissed as “controversial” and “provocative”. Now my sources in Moscow tell me that the selling point of the talks is to kick-start the Geneva process which seems to have stalled irreversibly.
A brave assumption, considering that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has appeared on the scene since then and no one from that group has been invited to Moscow, with only representatives of the moderate opposition having been included on the list of guests.
What worries Moscow
What seems to worry Moscow most of all is that the consultations may be seen by some people as an attempt to substitute or – God forbid – undermine the Geneva talks on Syria. It is a concern that Russian ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Saspkin took pains to make clear in an interview with the Lebanese paper As-Safir recently.
It is worthwhile remembering that Geneva II was also seen – by those on the Syrian side at least – as the last and final phase of the attempts to resolve the Syrian conflict.
I have learned that the whole invitation process for the consultations has been carefully structured to avoid any recrimination and suspicions. People were invited on a strictly individual basis without any mention of titles or political leanings. The idea may be to exercise “people’s diplomacy” in the hope that similarly minded individuals might form alliances and speak on behalf of whole groups rather than just themselves, while providing a safe environment for all parties to meet.
It is still unclear how many invitations have been accepted. But the idea, as I understand it, is that whoever ignores this “historic opportunity” would be seen as uninterested in reaching any agreement in the first place, so at least the reluctant ones would single themselves out.
Even if the meetings do not produce tangible results, they may still mark progress in the process of finding a solution to the Syrian conflict – that is, if the participants manage not to walk out on each other. It would be an even bigger achievement, if some sort of schedule for Geneva III round of talks is discussed.
However, the problem is that these meetings take place at a time of heightened tensions between the main backers of the Geneva process: Russia and the US. With the war in Ukraine reaching a new point of danger, threatening to drag Moscow and Washington into a new spiral of confrontation, the timing of the Syrian consultations could not be worse as all eyes in the Kremlin are firmly fixed on eastern Ukraine.
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.