The position issued by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov features numerous facets. Some considered that it marked the beginning of a transformation in Russia’s position towards the Syrian issue, while others believed it did not carry any shift away from its insistence on the Geneva Accord which was adopted by the five superpowers in June. They rather interpreted it in a different way and fueled this divergence which provided it with an opportunity to elude its responsibilities, and gave it more time to abstain from adopting any initiative or serious action.
The Russian official did not exclude the opposition’s victory, which was considered to be a new development. And it is, seeing how it was issued – or leaked – publically for the first time. But did anyone ever think that Moscow expected anything else? Is it possible that it has also been living, just like President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in a virtual world, far away from what is happening on the street? There is no doubt that for many months, it has been following the retreat of the regime’s ability to impose stability.
On the other hand, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry rushed to respond to Washington’s welcoming of the new position, by assuring that his country had not changed its stand! And this is quite true, considering that in the same statement, Bogdanov cautioned that the conflict could last months and cause the fall of thousands of victims. Hence, he reiterated the insistence on a peaceful solution, a transitional phase and a provisional government that would abide by what was agreed on in Geneva, which has been Moscow’s position since the beginning of the crisis. What is new however is that Russia, which believed since the eruption of the revolution it would be able to use the veto right at the Security Council and the weapons it has been dispatching to Syria to protect its interests in the country, learned in light of the opposition’s progress into the heart of Damascus that the settlement is coming, no matter how long it takes, as it was also expected by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. However, this settlement will not be sustained, which is something it does not want to see, just like Washington, which reiterated that the White House and Kremlin shared the same goal, i.e. to reach a political solution as soon as possible.
What is important is that everyone is now convinced President Al-Assad will not remain in power, while what is required is a political solution and the end of the fighting whose continuation will demolish the country and destroy all the state institutions. They are all relying on the Geneva decisions to call for a transitional phase that would ensure a peaceful transition of power, and had Washington not converged with Moscow over such a solution, it would not have held back those wishing to arm the opposition to settle the battle in Damascus. Clearly, the two capitals fear the military settlement and its repercussions, knowing that the difficulty – or the predicament – at this level is the dispute between them over the perception of the transitional phase and the mechanisms for the implementation of the political solution. The difficulty also resides in the fact that the two sides of the conflict are raising the slogan of the settlement on the field, while not one opposition faction is agreeing to sit around the dialogue table with the regime. This is making President Al-Assad feel pushed in the corner of “kill or be killed,” and he will not be reassured by any Russian or non-Russian guarantees. Perhaps he hopes to eventually get international guarantees, considering that the images of Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi are undoubtedly haunting him, and that his fears will increase whenever he feels that Kremlin is seeking alternatives to uphold its interests.
True, Russia is still advocating the same position, but it now believes there is no logical or realistic wager on the regime which in turn is mobilizing all his troops in the capital. For its part, Washington fears that the final settlement will be costly and destructive on the human and material levels, and will lead to massacres, torture, retaliation and revenge.
The question today is the following: how will the two capitals translate their wish to see a political solution?
There is no doubt that the American reluctance which has been ongoing for 20 months will likely continue until the end of next month, i.e. the birth date of the new administration, and that the initiative is missing within the American command. This is why Britain proposed to play this role, after it was assigned by the European Union to follow up on the arming of the opposition based on certain conditions, the most important of which being the exclusion of the Jihadist elements linked to Al-Qaeda. For that end, Britain drew up a research paper, and the road will definitely not be easy for it to reach an understanding over the implementation of the Geneva Accord, or to capitalize on its valid clauses, the first of which is related to the formation of a transitional government on which the opposition would agree with some regime leaders whose hands were not drenched in blood. Still, it cannot replace the United States in comprehensive negotiations with Russia.
There is also no doubt that Washington was able to deplete Moscow’s position in Syria, seeing how it never had the intention of sitting around the same table as Russia to seal a deal over the regional issues as it was hoped by Kremlin, and did not settle for the deployment of early warning devices in Turkey in the context of NATO’s missile shield, thus dispatching Patriot missiles and the soldiers operating them to the border with Syria, and Russia’s southern border. This action on the field was accompanied by its recognition of the opposition’s National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Consequently, Putin’s administration is left with no other choice but to attempt to limit the losses, or await complete failure in Syria, one which exceeds Russia’s status in this country and will cause the loss of an active and influential seat it holds in the regional order that is taking shape in the region over the rubble of crumbling Arab regimes. Moscow has paid and is still paying the price of its reluctance and its inability to overcome the “Libya complex,” failing to realize since the beginning that the American and European plan is to topple the regime in Damascus and undermine the so-called rejectionist alliance. Today, its fears should be over Iran, in light of Washington’s insistence on ending its nuclear project and refusal to discuss with it issues related to its role, ambitions and dreams in the region.
Today, Moscow’s concerns are similar to those of the remaining members of the group, perceiving the Syrian issue from a more complex angle than the mere departure of Al-Assad. In addition, it can sense an international inability to stop the infighting, although it is the regime’s main supplier with weapons and is the most morally responsible for what is happening. Russia is more familiar with the structure of the Syrian military institution than anyone else, and it is definitely wondering about the fate of more than 30,000 Alawite officers and 100,000 Alawite soldiers from the regular army among other elements from the Christian and Druze minorities, who stand today behind the killing and destruction campaign being waged by the regime. Based on that reality, it wants the international community to find a solution that would allow the latter to leave the regime. It is known nevertheless that this does not include the senior commanders who are part of the small circle which planned and managed the operations. Moreover, it certainly wants to protect its known interests in Syria, at the head of which is the naval base in Tartous. In this context, some are suggesting the establishment of a temporary military council with international support, in order to arrange the president’s exit and stop the fighting. This would be done in preparation for the establishment of a provisional concord government that would manage the transitional phase and supervise the reform of the army and the security apparatuses so that they include the two fighting armies, thus upholding the military institution and preventing security collapse in the country as it was seen in Iraq and Libya. Furthermore, this government would draw up a new constitution, which would be reassuring to all the sectarian and ethnic components of society.
Russia now has an opportunity during the Istanbul meeting that will be held in two days between the representatives of the Geneva group (i.e. the five superpowers in addition to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and the special UN-Arab envoy). Indeed, this meeting ought to determine the fate of the political solution, its chances of success and the possibility of seeing an agreement between these sides which are now convinced that Syria should be spared from the military settlement and its catastrophic repercussions on the national fabric and its components, and on the unity of the country which could become an arena for various fundamentalisms.
The question at this level is the following: can this international and regional momentum result in an understanding that would please all the sides? Moscow’s visitors lately felt that it was not holding on to President Al-Assad and has become convinced there can be no solution if he were to stay in power and no room for the “no winner, no loser” formula. It is thus giving the impression it might be willing to cooperate over the establishment of a provisional government including national figures and technocrats, in order to draw up a new constitution and prepare for parliamentary elections, while enjoying all the executive prerogatives as per the Geneva Accord. Afterwards, it might be willing to exercise the required pressures to get Al-Assad to step down instead of waiting until the end of his term in 2014. However, this means that it is unwilling to accept a provisional government whose formation is being considered by the opposition National Coalition, in order to manage the liberated areas and supervise the reception and allocation of the aid.
In light of the race with the developments on the field, the Geneva group should have firstly agreed on a common and clear definition of the transitional phase, its elements and duration. Secondly, it should have agreed over a roadmap to reach that stage. Still, this would not have been enough to launch the implementation process, which necessitates the third requirement, i.e. a pledge by all parties to exercise pressures on both sides of the conflict to impose this plan. Can the Istanbul meeting compensate for the lost time throughout the last twenty months, or has the political solution become impossible after all the killing, destruction and grudges? And who can guarantee that the two warring parties will cooperate with the pressures campaign? Can Moscow present an exit from this predicament or present a convincing vision, not only for its partners in Geneva, but also for the opposition, based on Bogdanov’s predictions that this opposition will win, thus seriously contributing this time around to drawing up a path for the quick departure of the regime leaders?