Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that, before talks on a cease-fire in Syria can move forward, Western powers must agree to identify the “terrorist” groups within the Syrian opposition.
This could prove to be significant obstacle to the talks, since the Russians–and, of course, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad–have long maintained that virtually all rebel groups are terrorists, so there is no legitimate challenge to the regime.
On the other hand, it could be an opening to negotiate a post-Assad future, if the Russians are prepared to make do without this particular strongman. Their strategic objectives could be fulfilled by a Moscow-aligned regime under different management, and they might decide Assad himself is more trouble than he is worth, but they will never agree to a Syrian endgame that makes it appear he was deposed by “terrorists.”
According to Bloomberg Business, Lavrov said he wanted two lists drawn up: “The first is a list of terrorist organizations that wouldn’t fall under a cease-fire that we all hope at some stage to announce. The second list will comprise an opposition delegation that will negotiate with the government under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Lavrov has reportedly discussed these conditions with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and United Nations envoy Steffan de Mistura. The latter seemed to reject Lavrov’s demands, saying that talks should resume promptly without conditions, and the entire Syrian opposition must be represented. (Presumably he does not think the Islamic State should be represented, and it is doubtful anyone from al-Qaeda’s front groups would be welcome. Unfortunately, the Russians are not entirely hallucinating the presence of terrorists in the Syrian opposition.)
The Bloomberg report sees the vague outlines of a compromise between U.S. and Russian objectives in Syria, although hammering together a workable agreement will clearly take a lot of work.
“The U.S. and its allies insist Assad must leave office as part of any accord, though they have in recent weeks signaled they could countenance him staying on in a transitional administration,” Bloomberg writes. “Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his country’s first military campaign outside of the former Soviet Union in more than three decades in September to help Assad. Putin hosted the Syrian leader at the Kremlin last month, and is pushing for a power-sharing plan that would let him stay in office and contest elections, while giving the opposition a role in the Middle Eastern state’s government.”
It remains to be seen which side has the leverage to get what it wants, but between their bombing campaign, the growing regional influence of their friends in Iran, and the incredible pressure put on Europe by the migrant crisis, the Russians are holding a lot of high cards.