The Financial Times disclosed today that elements of the Syria opposition – those fighting to remove Syrian president & dictator Bashar al-Assad – are engaged in secret negotiations with Russia, meeting in and moderated by Turkey.
The Financial Times quoted one anonymous opposition figure, “The Russians and Turks are talking without the US now. [Washington] is completely shut out of these talks, and doesn’t even know what’s going on in Ankara.”
The fact of Russian and Turkish contempt for the U.S. administration is not news. Russian president Vladimir Putin has made his point that Russia is a player to be taken seriously in the Syrian Civil War. Such is Putin’s animus toward Obama that he may regrettably be delaying progress on a ceasefire until the new American administration is installed. And Turkish president Erdogan cannot be more contemptuous: when Vice President Joe Biden visited Ankara on August 24, he was greeted by the Deputy Mayor of Ankara. What, was the Director of Sanitation not available? The U.S. is simply dismissed by Russia and Turkey for bringing nothing to the table.
The fact of these talks may be good news for Syria’s nearly one million remaining Christian residents. They are likely to yield some flow of humanitarian aid into Aleppo. And they may yield a modus operandi for moving forward with negotiations over the future of Syria.
Russia has made it clear to Erdogan that the removal of Assad is off the table in the short-run. Whether Russia will consent eventually to a future Syria without Assad is unknown but possible. Only Russia has a shot at persuading Assad to go peaceably. But before Assad goes, we must be certain that what follows is a place where Christians and other religious minorities can live in peace and as equal citizens.
Solidarity with the Persecuted Church has repeatedly called on the U.S. government to defend the interests of the Christian population of Syria, which is not represented in the UN sponsored peace talks. With the U.S. now sidelined, it isn’t clear who will speak for the Christians. Perhaps the Russian government, which cares about maintaining the good favor of the Russian Orthodox Church, which we believe in turn cares deeply about the Christian presence in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
With the clarity of hindsight, the U.S. ought to have heeded the plea of Patriarch Gregorius of the Melkite Catholic Church, who begged the world in February 2013 not to send arms to Syria. The pursuit of regime change at the barrel of a rifle is a failure of imagination. The human cost of that failure is terrible to witness.