The Rendon Group Snapshot Report: 18 December 2017

by TRG Alerts Admin on December 18, 2017

Russia asserts role in the Syria’s transition

Putin in Syrian airbase

Putin addresses troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria on 11DEC17. (AP)

During a surprise trip to Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country, declaring victory in the nearly seven-year-old civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes. However, analysts  have not only voiced skepticism of the announcement, but have also highlighted that Russia will continue to play a pivotal role in Syria’s transition. Russians are generally unsupportive about their country’s continued participation in the conflict, so it is believed that Putin will downplay Moscow’s role in Syria at home as he seeks reelection for another six-year term in March. But within the international community, Russia has emerged as a key dealmaker in the peace process, particularly as the UN facilitated an eighth-round of talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition. In fact, the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura urged Russia to convince its ally, the Syrian government, to accept that there needs to be a new constitution and new elections to prevent the “fragmentation of Syria”  and to achieve lasting peace. And while UN efforts again proved “fruitless” (with Damascus largely blamed for being unwilling to fully participate), most experts believe that Russia will maintain its strong influence over Syria as a part of a long-term strategy to bolster its position in the Middle East. Doing so would enable it to secure an upper hand against the US and other major powers in the region. For the next phase of talks, Putin has offered to organize a special event, a Syrian dialogue on a National Congress, in Russia in early 2018 to bring together the Syrian government and opposition once more.

 

News summary of events during the week of 11DEC17 – 18DEC17

 

  • 11DEC: Russian president Vladimir Putin announced Moscow’s partial departure from Syria, warning that “if terrorists again raise their head,” Russia will deliver strikes “they haven’t seen.” (DW)
  • 11DEC: Putin said that the Syrian national congress dialogue, due to be held in early 2018, will discuss the country’s constitution and elections under the UN aegis. (Interfax)
  • 12DEC: The first Russian troops returned home from their deployment in Syria, beginning the partial withdrawal announced by Putin. (AFP)
  • 12DEC: The Pentagon voiced skepticism about Putin’s announcement, saying that such declarations “do not often correspond with actual troop reductions, and do not affect US priorities in Syria.” (AFP)
  • 12DEC: Reports revealed that thousands of Russian contractors have been fighting in Syria since 2015, which Putin neglected to mention in his announcement the day before. (AP)
  • 12DEC: Speaking about the role of Russia and Iran in helping al-Assad regain the upper hand in the civil war, French FM Le Drian said: “Russia supplies aviation and support on the ground but Iran supplies its militia and supports Hezbollah.” (AFP)
  • 12DEC: The head of Russia’s FSB security service warned that former militants from “bandit units” in Syria are now a real threat after the defeat of Islamic State, as many of them may be now planning to return to Russia. (Reuters)
  • 12DEC: UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura met and held separate bilateral talks with both the Syrian government and opposition delegations. (Xinhua)
  • 13DEC: Mistura urged Russia to convince its ally the Syrian government of the need to reach a peace deal. (Reuters)
  • 14DEC: Mistura said the latest round of Geneva talks ended without progress after two fruitless weeks, harshly criticizing the actions of the Syrian government and opposition. (AP)
  • 14DEC: The Syrian government’s top negotiator said his team would not talk to the opposition delegation due to a statement it released before the current round of talks, which declared that al-Assad had no role to play in Syria’s political transition. (Xinhua)
  • 15DEC: The US urged supporters of the Syrian government to press it to “participate fully” in negotiations with the opposition. (Reuters)
  • 16DEC: Syrian government forces entered small parts of the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib in one of their deepest incursions into the area where the government almost has no presence. (AP)
  • 18DEC: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that his administration welcomes any role of the UN in possible Syrian elections as long as it respects the Syrian sovereignty. (Xinhua)
  • 18DEC: A Russian business delegation was in Damascus for talks with President Assad on “major economic projects” for investment and reconstruction in the country. (AFP)

 

Sample of Twitter handles tweeting about Russia’s role in Syria’s transition

 

  • @aaronstein1Aaron Stein, Senior Resident Fellow, Atlantic Council
  • @amberinzamanAmbern Zaman, Columnist, Al-Monitor
  • @BilalWahabBilal Wahab, Soref Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
  • @DmitriTreninDmitri Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Center
  • @NatVasilyevaAPNataliya Vasilyeva, Correspondent, Associated Press

 

Sample of Third Party Validators regarding Russia’s role in Syria’s transition

 

Konstantin von Eggert, Political Analyst, Kommersant FM, Russia

“People [in Russia] are not that much concerned about Syria, it is a faraway land that people do not know much about.”

    • “Whirlwind Putin Tour Highlights Moscow’s New Reach in Mideast,” NYT, 11DEC17

 

Mark Galeotti, Senior Researcher, Institute of International Relations, Prague

“The Russian people are not very enthused by the idea of an empire that would involve their boys coming home in body bags. There’s clearly a lack enthusiasm for this conflict … By having this military company Wagner, they can have a force they can actually deploy … but when people die, it doesn’t have to be announced.”

    • “Thousands of private contractors fighting in Syria,”AP, 12DEC17

 

William Courtney, Adjunct Senior Fellow, RAND Corporation

“Vladimir Putin is determined to restore a greater role for Russia as a global power … and the Middle East is really the main area where Russia has that potential, in part because the Soviet Union played that role in the Soviet period.”

    • “Under Putin, Russia increases clout in the Middle East,” AP, 13DEC17

 

Noah Bonsey, Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group

“There are still major questions and a lot of potential for escalating violence in various parts of Syria.”

    • “In Syria, Russia securing position as Assad presses war,” Reuters, 15DEC17

 

Nikolay Kozhanov, Professor, European University, St. Petersburg

“Moscow’s influence on Assad is limited […] Assad shouldn’t be seen as Russia’s puppet.”

    • “UN Syria talks in doubt as Russia takes on dealmaker role,” AFP, 15DEC17

 

Sample of open source research conducted by TRG analysts related to Russia’s role in Syria’s transition

 

  1. Putin Declares Victory in Surprise Stopover in Syria

 

Media: Wall Street Journal

Byline: Nathan Hodge

Date: 11 December 2017

 

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a surprise visit to a military air base in Syria, in an effort to showcase his country’s rising clout in the Middle East months ahead of a presidential election.

 

Mr. Putin landed Monday at Hmeimim air base, a military outpost in Syria’s Latakia province that has been the main launching point for Russian warplanes backing the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In remarks to Russian troops, he claimed victory, saying Russian forces and their allies had “defeated the most battle-ready grouping of international terrorists” opposing Mr. Assad.

 

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  1. Syrian gov’t, opposition delegations continue indirect peace talks in Geneva

 

Media: Xinhua (China)

Byline: N/A

Date: 12 December 2017

 

GENEVA, Dec. 12 (Xinhua) — Syrian peace talks continued here Tuesday, with United Nations (UN) Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura meeting and holding separate bilateral talks with both the Syrian government and opposition delegations.

 

It is the 8th round of Syrian peace talks led by the UN.

 

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  1. Putin must nudge Syria into U.N. peace deal, mediator says

 

Media: Reuters

Byline: Stephanie Nebehay

Date: 13 December 2017

 

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura urged Russia on Wednesday to convince its ally the Syrian government of the need to clinch a peace deal to end the nearly seven-year-old war.

 

De Mistura, speaking on Swiss television station RTS, said failure to make peace quickly through United Nations mediation could lead to “a fragmentation of Syria”.

 

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  1. UN blames Damascus for ‘golden opportunity missed’ at Syria peace talks

 

Media: Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Byline: Nina Larson and Paul Raymond

Date: 14 December 2017

 

Geneva (AFP) – The UN envoy for Syria acknowledged Thursday that the latest round of peace talks for the war-ravaged country had failed, and blamed Damascus for the “golden opportunity missed”.

 

Staffan de Mistura told reporters that “we did not have real negotiations, blaming in particular the government delegation’s apparent lack of interest in discussing anything besides the fight against “terrorism”.

 

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  1. Syrian gov’t rejects claims of hindering Geneva talks

 

Media: Xinhua (China)

Byline: N/A

Date: 15 December 2017

 

DAMASCUS, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) — The Syrian Foreign Ministry on Friday slammed claims that the Syrian government delegation was responsible for the failure of the latest round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, state news agency SANA reported.

 

In a statement, the ministry deplored what it called the “allegations” of the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and France, which blamed the administration of President Bashar al-Assad for the failure of the eighth round of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva.

 

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