One of the many reasons for the failure of the Geneva II conference on finding a peaceful solution for Syria, which was held in two rounds in January and February this year, was the unwillingness of the delegation sent by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to accept its stated purpose: to organize a joint “transitional governing body” with “full executive powers.” Instead, Assad decided that his delegation should focus on fighting terrorism, a term he had generously redefined to include most leaders of the exiled political opposition.
In order to get Assad to change his mind, the Syrian opposition, the UN, and the Western and Gulf states all turned to Russia, but their pleas had little effect.
With Russian-American relations now fundamentally upset by the crisis in Ukraine, a resumption of the talks in Geneva doesn’t seem to be around the corner. But even in the far future, it is difficult to imagine a negotiated solution where Russia is not part of the equation.
Even so, the failure of the first two rounds of negotiations has cast doubt on the idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin is truly capable of “delivering Assad,” an unspoken assumption underlying the entire Geneva peace process.
While many of us like to imagine world politics as a game of chess between great powers, reality tends to be rather more like a round of flipper: you can knock around the ball for quite a while if you’re fast enough, but get too aggressive and you’ll tilt the game. Even a minor power that depends for its survival on a greater one can act with some level of political autonomy, particularly when it comes to local affairs and certainly if its own survival is at stake.
In the case of Syria and Russia, there is little doubt about who relies on whom, but their historical relationship has never simply been that of client and patron. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, Russia may not even be privy to the political thinking of Syria’s extraordinarily closed Baath Party elite—and Putin may be just as much in the dark about Assad’s intentions as the rest of us are.
To illustrate, let’s have a look at the career of one of the key figures for Russia’s Syria policy. A leaked 1994 telegram from the American embassy in Damascus, made available via Wikileaks, describes a meeting with the then deputy chief of mission at the Russian embassy. His name was Mikhail Bogdanov, and he’s still around today, as one of Russia’s deputy ministers of foreign affairs.
An Arabic-speaking career diplomat, Bogdanov has spent all of his professional life poring over Middle Eastern politics since entering the Soviet diplomatic service in South Yemen in 1974. He soon gravitated toward the Levant. Between 1983 and 1989, and again between 1991 and 1994, he was stationed at the Damascus embassy, working closely with then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s government. In addition, he has spent another combined total of eighteen years in Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and as head of the Middle East desk at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In June 2011, Bogdanov was appointed to the post of deputy foreign minister, and he has since acted as Putin’s point man on Syrian affairs.
Back in 1994, Bogdanov was undoubtedly already a well-qualified expert on Syrian politics, but he turned out to be just as puzzled as everyone else when asked about the inner workings of the regime.
Hafez al-Assad’s eldest son and anointed heir, Basil al-Assad, had just died in a car accident. Damascus was abuzz with rumors about who the new heir to the Assad family throne would be. The U.S. embassy seems to have been kept completely in the dark. As far as we can tell from the Wikileaks documents, the embassy staff had to make do with listening to the gossip and guesswork of whomever dropped by.
To the surprise of the U.S. diplomatic staff, that also applied to Bogdanov. “The Russian embassy appears genuinely unable to lay odds on possible successors in the wake of Basil’s untimely demise,” wrote the embassy in its dispatch back to the State Department in Washington. The Americans marveled at the fact that decades of close cooperation between Moscow and Damascus had not made the Russian diplomats any better than the U.S. ones at, as the cable put it, “sifting fact from fiction” in the Syrian rumor mill.
Bogdanov freely admitted to the U.S. ambassador that when it came to Hafez al-Assad’s succession planning, he was as “bereft of reliable information as most others” but added that he agreed with the American assessment that “it is premature to assume that the next eldest son, Bashar, will become an important player.”
But Bashar al-Assad did become an important player in Syria, and a full twenty years later, his regime remains as secretive as that of his father—an impenetrable black box of family, clan, business, and intelligence elites.
So the million ruble question remains unanswered: How much real insight do Bogdanov and the Moscow government have into the decisionmaking in Damascus, and how far could Russia hope to push the Syrian president toward a peace deal if Assad decides that he simply doesn’t want one?
Perhaps not very far at all.
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