Middle East

Russian negotiator recounts road to peace in Syria

As Syria nearing to endgame, Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva reveals pitfalls, progress in Syrian peace process to Anadolu Agency

İftikhar Gilani   | 03.11.2019
Russian negotiator recounts road to peace in Syria

ISTANBUL 

It is not an easy task to get a serving diplomat to talk to media, especially if he/she was assigned as a top negotiator to calm nerves in a war-like situation.

As war-torn Syria is nearing to an endgame, Anadolu Agency talked to Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, the senior advisor of Russian Foreign Ministry, who has also served as an envoy at the UN Office in Geneva.

Russia’s main negotiator in Syria, who was part of roller coaster talks engaged with the U.S. and many other countries, shared some insights and opined what led Russia to realize Turkey’s significance in the process. Her two books on Syria are soon hitting stands in Turkey as they are getting translated currently.

Anadolu Agency: After the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, it is believed that Russia has emerged as a main gainer in the process. As the Russian negotiator involved in Syria, what are your views?

Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva: I can be very frank with you. It is not about gaining, it is about bringing peace and settling the issue. In 2015 we intervened in the conflict. We came there because of our national interest. Many of our citizens joined fighting in Syria, which was a problem for us. We had to protect ourselves from an impending disaster. We tried and were part of almost every process to seek peace and stability in the region. After testing all the doors, we proposed dialogue with Turkey.

AA: What was your experience with the U.S. when you were negotiating peace?

MKG: The United States as world power is engaged at various levels. There is 20-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG), co-chaired by Russian and the U.S. foreign ministers. It failed to deliver results. Then Russia and the U.S. reached important agreements and decisions related to the ceasefire in February 2016. One of very important decisions was on the eastern Aleppo in September 2016. Both agreements were very good. But the ceasefire lasted only two weeks. We sat down and discussed whether the U.S. lacked political will or if it was serious enough. We found that was not the case. I can tell you the U.S. had political will to implement the ceasefire. But something was missing. What was missing was influence of regional states. Because each group had backing of some or other states. I am not revealing a big secret. We decided to reach out to regional states. Out of all, Turkey was most helpful. If the agreement with the U.S. had been respected, a new page of history would have opened in international relations. After this failure, we had no choice but to turn to the regional actors who are engaged on the spot.

AA: You mentioned that the U.S. failure to hold a ceasefire in Aleppo made you to revisit your strategy. Why did it take too long for you to discover the significance of Turkey?

MKG: We had been always in touch. But particularly after our disappointment with the U.S. in the eastern Aleppo when they were not able to implement the agreement, we realized that Turkey has influence and capacity to implement on the ground what is decided across the tables. That is how the Astana process was born. The first meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, was held on Jan. 23-24, 2017. And so far, it has been the most successful process. Russia also had cooperated with Turkey in the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians and militants from eastern Aleppo before Syrian troops entered the city.

AA: As I was counting from Arab League Plan of 2011 to Kofi Annan Plan, Syria has seen some 30 processes. All have failed. As an active negotiator in the region, why do you think they did not bring any results?

MKG: Many stakeholders are involved in Syria. Actually, the UN had taken over and held nine rounds of talks in Geneva. It tried to bring together different parties. It was successful and non-successful as well. It was successful in the sense that the parties sat together, talked, and tried to find a common ground. It was unsuccessful because the process stopped. Why? That is another top of the discussion. Main issue in my opinion was that the Syrian opposition delegation was not as representative as it should have been. They did not have military commanders on board. Some of important segments of Syrian society were out of the process. A representative person with an authority matters during negotiations.

AA: Russia does not have history of mediating in conflicts and disputes. How did you manage this new role for Russia?

MKG: I would argue with that. We were throughout on the path of mediation in Syria. Earlier in Ukraine also, where we have formed a contact group. We were quite active in Palestine. Now with this talk of the deal of the century, nobody knows where we are heading. We are a sought-after [mediator] in Afghanistan. We conducted talks in Moscow between players.

Also, we mediate only in the regions where we think we can be helpful and where we have contacts. We do not mediate where we do not think we can build trust and confidence among parties.

AA: What are the essential ingredients that makes a good mediator?

MKG: You may be a world power or have all the powers and boots. But never attempt to impose your agenda. Listen to parties. You have to understand and propose a feasible solution. Proposition and not imposition is the key.

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