After failing to enforce reconciliation in Syria while working with the U.S. and other international players for over three years, Russia learned the hard way that the road to peace travels through Turkey, a top Russian diplomat told Anadolu Agency.
Senior Advisor of Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, who was part of the Russian team that negotiated cease-fire with the U.S. in eastern Aleppo in September 2016, said the peace lasted for just two weeks, because both powers had ignored regional players.
“We could not demilitarize the city as had been agreed. We first thought, it was lack of will on behalf of the U.S. Finally, we realized after discussing among ourselves, that it was something else. What was missing was the regional states were not on board. This is when the Russia-Turkey love affair emerged,” she said.
Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, a serving diplomat, pointed out that as soon as Russians reached out to Turkey and had an agreement, it was implemented quickly. “Because Turkish side had good link and influence on the groups on the ground and they implemented it. The U.S. lacked such leverage,” she said.
Author of two books, ‘Aleppo War and Diplomacy’ and ‘Thorny Ways to Peace,’ the Russian diplomat with an extensive negotiating experience in Syria was in Istanbul to participate in the Istanbul Mediation Conference organized by Turkish Foreign Ministry. Her remarks have further firmed the belief that the previous U.S. administration complicated the Syrian crisis by banking upon and using motley terrorist groups as their foot soldiers, rather than relying on the NATO ally, Turkey in the region.
Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, who has also worked at the Permanent Mission of Russia at the UN Office in Geneva, said basically the Aleppo issue sparked the search for better negotiation formats to resolve the Syria conflict.
She said even the 20-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers could not solve the Aleppo or the Idlib problem. “Because we realized that the group was not focused and we had too many people around the table and each one wanted to talk. We realized that we did not need talks, but action. And that is what mediation is about,” the diplomat added.
Turkey’s help changed situation
The Russian diplomat, currently serving in the Department of Strategic Planning in the Foreign Ministry, said after contact with Turkey proved worth in Aleppo, Moscow continued engagements and both sides agreed on a ceasefire in 2017. “We on our part convinced Damascus to observe cease-fire and Turkey played its part, convincing opposition groups to hold fire. In the North, it was easy, but Turkey managed to do it even in the South, which was difficult,” said Khodynskaya-Golenischeva.
She pointed out that Russia and Turkey, so far, have succeeded to create de-escalation zones in Idlib and parts of neighboring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces; in the northern part of Homs province; in the Damascus neighborhood of Eastern Ghouta, and in parts of southern Deraa and Quneitra provinces bordering Jordan.
“Main idea was to freeze the situation as it was, to stop fighting. Even if some big area was under the control of armed opposition groups. Believe me, since I was part of process, it was very difficult to convince Damascus. But we managed.”
The diplomat also revealed that Russia had also launched a parallel process to get in touch with opposition groups directly and to other countries in the region like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE. But she admitted overall it was Turkey that helped Russia and it was because of these efforts that the Syrian Constitutional Committee — made up of members of the opposition, civil society, and regime — began operating in Geneva recently.
Sharing an experience, she said once a group who was holding Jubar area in the outskirts of Damascus was shelling the Russian embassy. “We tried to negotiate with them. But failed. Ultimately, we probed their linkages by keenly observing their social media presence and identified their contacts with a particular country,” she said.
The diplomat added that after talking to that country, the group not only stopped shelling, but withdrew from the area. “That left us to demine and make it safe. That is how technology works in mediation,” said Khodynskaya-Golenischeva. But with a wry smile, she added that technology cannot substitute contacts with actual people on the ground and those holding influence.
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