For more background on the Russian initiative, read yesterday’s post on Syria in Crisis.

After more than three years of war, President Bashar al-Assad’s alliance with Russia is as close as ever. When the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin began to put the word out that it was trying to arrange Syrian-Syrian peace talks in Moscow—to fill the void after the so-called Geneva II conference that collapsed in spring 2014—it seemed certain that their Syrian ally would join the process.

There appears to have been close consultations in the run-up to the meeting. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem was invited to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on November 26, and he was also granted a rare one-on-one meeting with Putin. But even though the Syrian foreign minister came out of these meeting praising Russia’s policies, he remained noncommittal, saying only that he had listened “with great interest” to Putin’s proposal and that the two sides had “agreed to continue consultations to put [forth] a joint vision leading to a political solution in Syria.”

However, a month later, the Kremlin released more information on the planned meeting and indicated that the Syrian government had decided to participate. On December 27, the Syrian ministry of foreign affairs finally issued a formal statement saying it would indeed attend the upcoming talks, describing them as a “preparatory consultative meeting in Moscow that aims at coming to agree[ment] on convening a conference for dialogue among the Syrians without any foreign interference.”

Different views of the Geneva Communiqué

However, under the surface, there are some interesting political dissonances. Contrary to claims from some of the opposition, Assad is no Russian puppet and Moscow’s main interest in Syria has always been to build international leverage and preserve its own influence—not keep Assad in power, though the former does increasingly seem to require the latter.

Throughout the war there have been minor signs of disagreement, though always overshadowed by mutual assurances of solid and improving relations. In this instance, the more Russia’s concern over weak opposition participation in the talks has increased, the more it has played up its own commitment to the so-called Geneva communiqué. The invitations sent out to around thirty opposition members in early January 2015 even contained an explicit assurance that the talks will be based on the communiqué.

The Geneva communiqué is a UN-brokered document signed by several states on June 30, 2012—including Russia and the United States, but not Syria or Iran. With that meeting sometimes described as “Geneva I,” the resulting Geneva communiqué remains the only widely-endorsed principles for a Syrian peace process and it formed the basis for the ensuing Geneva II talks.

The Geneva communiqué does not mention Assad’s role in Syria, a fact often stressed by the regime and its Russian ally, but it implicitly endorses some form of political transition by stating that a Syrian peace process must include the creation of some form of mutually acceptable national unity government with “full executive powers.”

The Assad regime doesn’t like this at all. It grudgingly accepted the principles of the communiqué earlier in the war, while noting some reservations, but that was well before Assad’s military situation began to improve in mid-2013—and it had more to do with Russian pressure than with the regime’s own desire to seek political compromise. Lavrov has even openly acknowledged that the Russians had to push Assad to get him to publicly agree to the Geneva communiqué.

When the Geneva II talks finally commenced in early 2014, Moallem’s government delegation sought to wriggle free of this commitment to political transition and shift the subject to terrorism. Since the collapse of the Geneva II process in February 2014, the changing domestic and international situation has further emboldened the regime. Assad now apparently refuses to restate his acceptance of the Geneva communiqué and he seems eager for it to disappear from public view. Having hoped that a Kremlin-led peace process would allow him to escape any requirements for root and branch reform, Assad can hardly be happy to see his Russian allies resurrecting the communiqué through their own Moscow plan.

In addition, there are other concerns. The Syrian government is still reluctant to grant legitimacy to any part of the opposition and it is wary of being led into a process outside of its own control, where Assad could be pressured to agree to new language on a transition or be forced to make political concessions to keep the opposition on board.

Still a good deal

Even so, for Assad the benefits of participating in a Kremlin-orchestrated peace process surely outweigh the risks. Not only does it remove the United States from the equation, agreeing to the talks will also make the Russians happy. That’s important, since the Syrian government is by now in dire need not only of foreign military assistance but also increasingly of economic aid.

Even though Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi has assured citizens concerned by Syria’s deteriorating economy that foreign credit lines will soon be opened and financial support is forthcoming, negotiations about Russian and Iranian economic aid have dragged on through the autumn. Though some claim a deal has been reached, the details remain unclear. And while Syrian needs are constantly increasing—the government is allegedly about to slash its subsidy program entirely, which could have severe effects for Assad’s popular support—Iran and Russia are being forced to tighten their belts due to a rapid drop in oil prices. Assad must now be wary of provoking either of his main allies, lest they decide that less spending on their Syrian ally would be a good way to trim costs.

Agreeing to the Russian initiative also allows the government to portray itself as more flexible than the opposition, at a time when the international community has lost patience with the intransigence on both sides. When accepting the Russian invitation, Assad’s Minister of Information, Omran al-Zoubi, was quick to underline the preliminary and non-binding nature of the Moscow talks, but he also tried to claim the moral high ground by accusing the opposition—specifically the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has said it “categorically rejects” the Russian-led process—of being intrinsically violent and uncompromising. It is therefore “natural that it will be against any dialogue or initiative or reconciliation,” argued Zoubi, clearly content to see his government appear as the more reasonable party to the conflict.

Assad’s plan in Moscow

So far, the only opposition groups coming to Moscow are those closest to Assad and to the Russians, but the Syrian government has still made sure to keep its escape routes open. Since agreeing to the Russian initiative, the Assad government and its representatives have consistently stressed the preliminary and non-decisive nature of the Moscow talks. Assad’s adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, (who is expected to be part of the government delegation) says that the Moscow meeting is simply a “consultative preparatory dialogue with the opposition to discuss the basics according to which a dialogue conference must be arranged,” meaning that nothing can be decided in January and that any real talks would take place under a different framework.

For the Syrian government, then, this is merely the start of a process—one that Assad will at a later stage certainly try to relocate to Damascus and bring under his own control, while stripping it of Geneva-inspired talk about a political transition. For now, the Russians must be kept sweet and the West needs to be shown that Assad can be a responsible actor, and agreeing to talk in Moscow will help kick the ball back to the opposition’s court.

Read more on the Russian Initiative:

Joseph Bahout, Russia and Iran Step into Syria’s Diplomatic Vacuum, December 30, 2014.

Aron Lund, Russia Cannot Fix Syria Alone, January 13, 2015.