By Gunilla von Hall and Jamil Chade
November 11, 2019
The other day history was written in Geneva – in an astonishing way. For the first time since almost nine years of bloodstained war, the Syrian government and opposition met face-to-face overseen by UN special envoy Geir Pedersen.
Sitting stone faced in black chairs in the golden Council Chamber at the Palais des Nations, they stared at each other during the hourlong ceremony. It was a sad sight but with a glimmer of hope that one of the worst wars in modern history could be ended. From here the road is unimaginably steep and thorny. Very fragile talks between the parties are now under way.
But Jamil, it was not this unique meeting that I found most astonishing. It was the remarkable way it unfolded the evening before. The scene late at the Palais des Nations when the three foreign ministers from Russia, Iran and Turkey stepped up on the podium and flexed their muscles. Smiling proudly and speaking with confident voices. A sparkling show of power in front of huge flags from the three countries.
They were not supposed to be there at all. This whole exercise was going to be only “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned”, had Pedersen insisted. But they wanted to show their presence and influence; we all know president Bashar al-Assad has won the war with the help of Russia and Iran. The withdrawal of the American troops from northern Syria also made it possible for Assad to take back the last part of the war ravaged country after Turkey´s invasion and attacks on the Kurds.
As a telling sign of Russian influence, the Syrian government and some of the opposition delegation also arrived in Geneva on a Russian-chartered plane.
There is no doubt that this troika is pulling the strings behind the scenes while the Syria talks slowly advance. But the evening muscle on show at the Palais des Nations was also a sign of a new world order. An order where Russia is taking over not only the Syrian region but also steadily the world scene militarily, politically and diplomatically. Russia is happily filling the void being left by the United States withdrawal from countries and conflicts, international agreements and multilateral organizations.
Actually Jamil, what we saw in this elegant United Nations room on a chilly October night might just be the beginning. President Vladimir Putin is becoming the main actor on the international political scene; now playing the new role of peace broker. He is becoming more and more popular in the Middle East, is having better relations with Turkey and travels to Teheran and Tel Aviv. Even countries like France and Germany want to collaborate more closely with the rough leader. It is a dramatic change compared to 2014 when Vladimir Putin was seen as outcast after the annexation of Crimea, hammered with sanctions and pushed out of the G8.
The war in Syria has become his trampoline back to the world stage, decorated conference rooms and lush receptions with world leaders. It was one scene in this development that we witnessed in Geneva, a part of the world where a new world order is being played out. Where will this bring us ? What do you think Jamil ?
Jamil Chade responds:
There is no question about the role Russia plays today in Syria. There is now even a saying pointing to what you have described: "All Syrian roads lead to Moscow."
What we have observed in Geneva since the early days of the peace talks has been Putin and Lavrov's outstanding diplomatic strategy to shut the West off from playing a role in Syria.
Unlike the different American administrations over the years, the Kremlin seemed to have a plan. It is today the sole foreign power who can talk to all sides in this conflict. For many, Moscow is a more reliable partner than Washington in this crisis.
Grave violations of human rights by Russian forces
It now poses as a sort of older brother who claims to have alerted the West about the danger of an intervention. Just a couple of weeks ago, this is what Lavrov said to the Security Council:
"We tried to draw attention for many years to the explosive policies of the USA and the coalition, headed for the collapse of Syria and the creation of quasi-state formations on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, pushing Kurds to separatism and confrontation with Arab tribes."
But I also wanted to draw attention to a hard reality of this diplomatic success: the grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law by Russian forces.
Moscow is accused of committing war crimes and UN reports point out how its troops have bombed civilian infrastructure and hospitals, an assertion now documented by The New York Times. The Kremlin is also accused of being instrumental in aiding Assad in his efforts to cover up alleged attacks using chemical weapons.
In sum, Gunilla: Russia is the victorious foreign power in this conflict. But this victory did not come only in elegant rooms in Geneva, Sochi and elsewhere. And it did not come with clean hands either.
Jamil Chade is a Geneva-based European reporter for Brazilian news group UOL.
Gunilla von Hall is foreign correspondent for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet in Geneva.
The format of this article was inspired by the Financial Times' Swamp Notes.